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Best Zappa biography?

Discussion in ' Music Corner ' started by curly joe , Jul 21, 2017 .

curly joe

curly joe Forum Resident Thread Starter

I'm looking for a good bio on Frank Zappa. One that goes into his business dealings with record labels (like his poor relationship with Warners). Any recommendations? Thanks.  


radiogod Forum Resident

IMO. This one is definitely the best of the few that do exist.  

Andrew J

Andrew J Forum Resident

radiogod said: ↑ IMO. This one is definitely the best of the few that do exist. Click to expand...


pbuzby Senior Member

Avoid the Miles book. Lots of errors and speculation-as-fact. Unfortunately I don't know if a book like the original poster requested exists yet.  

Black Elk

Black Elk Music Lover

pbuzby said: ↑ Avoid the Miles book. Lots of errors and speculation-as-fact. Unfortunately I don't know if a book like the original poster requested exists yet. Click to expand...

t-man 54

t-man 54 Forum Resident

Oh yeah, The Ben Watson book. That's a few hours of my life i will never get back. If you ever see this book, run from it very fast  


dlokazip Forum Transient

The business dealings, label drama, and lawsuits are subjects I've been interested in for some time. Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to get that book anytime soon. The early stuff involving Herb Cohen with Verve and Bizarre/Straight are pretty well-known, but it gets sketchy after that. The whole Bat Chain Puller/Zoot Allures/Läther Warner Brothers fiasco could merit a volume all by itself, assuming anyone alive can chronicle what really happened. There are lots of conflicting accounts and speculation. After that, Frank was briefly managed by Bennett Glotzer before he turned everything over to Gail. Who knows if we'll ever get a complete account of the Gail era.  
dlokazip said: ↑ After that, Frank was briefly managed by Bennett Glotzer before he turned everything over to Gail. Who knows if we'll ever get a complete account of the Gail era. Click to expand...


AveryKG Sultan of snacks

I've read the Watson and the Miles. Of the two, I prefer the Watson by far, though whether it qualifies as a bio in the traditional sense is debatable. Certainly don't recall it going into much detail about his dealings with various record labels and such. I agree with @pbuzby about the Miles book, from what I remember of it. But for all round Frank-ness, I don't think you can really go wrong with The Real Frank Zappa Book, about which more can be gleaned here… The Real Frank Zappa Book --> my book review  


PIGGIES Forum Resident

Aside from Franks own book - which is always an interesting read, but isn't really an autobiography in the normal sense, I found this one to be a pretty good & thorough read.  


Folknik Forum Resident

It doesn't really go into a lot of record company politics, but Frank's own The Real Frank Zappa Book is a favorite of mine. I also enjoyed Zappa In His Own Words which is a collection of quotes in which he occasionally expressed his opinions of some of the dirty dealings in the record biz.  


vince Stan Ricker's son-in-law

I kinda like "MOTHER!" Lots of tales from Pamela Zarubica in this one....  


jeddy Forum Resident

"The Dangerous Kitchen:the subversive world of Frank Zappa" is a good one...  


kanakaris Forum Resident

Black Elk said: ↑ Come on, pbuzby, there's always this: Click to expand...


kendo Forum Resident

t-man 54 said: ↑ Oh yeah, The Ben Watson book. That's a few hours of my life i will never get back. If you ever see this book, run from it very fast Click to expand...


93curr Senior Member


gd0 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies

Watson's book seemed like it was more about Watson than Zappa. I confess I'm not the best-read guy on the planet, and his many literary and sociological references seemed like interruptions, for which I might, or might not, be compelled to take a break to do a quick search. In the end, I just wanted to learn about Frank Zappa. FZ's autobio will suffice. The only business aspect I'd be interested in would be Gail's tenure. And I've a hunch that is such a dark, disturbing world that we'll not be granted access, ever.  


Ignatius Forum Resident

I liked "Dangerous Kitchen", though I was sorta skeptical about the author's assessments of Zappa's music. He can't really like everything Frank did.  


alexpop Power pop + other bad habits....

Instant Dharma

Instant Dharma Dude/man


pdenny 22-Year SHTV Participation Trophy Recipient

alexpop said: ↑ Do belive this is the best one. Lot of detail. Though arduous read. Don't think there will be another truly great one with "the family " controlling everything now. Click to expand...
pdenny said: ↑ Finnegan's Wake was easier for me to get through. But I must say it was entertaining. Click to expand...


ParloFax Senior Member

alexpop said: ↑ I like how the author actually got to meet Zappa, sit down with him as FZ spinned his beloved 45's. That was the best bit. FZ needs a recordings session book ala Beatles, or a Positively Main Street with some ardent fan going back to his home turf El Monte Chevy '39. Click to expand...


Vangro Forum Resident

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Frank Zappa

Musician Frank Zappa made more than 60 albums during his career. Flouting convention and fusing musical genres, Zappa's music was often politically charged and intentionally shocking.

rotterdam, netherlands may 15 frank zappa performs on stage at ahoy on 15th may 1982 in rotterdam, netherlands photo by rob verhorstredferns


Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940, Frank Zappa was largely a self-taught musician, whose 30-year career embraced a wide variety of musical genres, encompassing rock, jazz, synth and symphonies. Avant-garde composers, as well as math and chemistry from his father's work, all fell into Zappa's mix of influences and comprised his unique approach to his art, coupled with a flouting of convention. Zappa also directed films, designed album covers and spoke about social issues. Although his unconventional aspect often overshadowed his brilliance, Zappa is highly respected as a musical pioneer. He died from prostate cancer on December 4, 1993, at age 52.

view of american rock, jazz, and experimental musician frank zappa 1940 1993 in a hotel room, san francisco, california, december 1975 photo by janet friesgetty images

Frank Vincent Zappa, born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940, the first of four children to Rose Marie (Colimore) and Francis Vincent Zappa, a Sicilian immigrant. The family moved frequently due to Francis Vincent Zappa's expertise as a chemist and mathematician, contracted with various aspects of the defense industry.

Young Zappa's exposure to chemicals, such as mustard gas, may have had a profound effect on his health, which was always challenging. He showed early interest in innovation via gadgets but this soon turned to music. Avant-guard composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse attracted him alongside interest in doo-wop/R&B and modern jazz. The family eventually settled outside of Los Angeles in Zappa's late teens, and he soon took up drum and guitar. His proficiency grew so quickly that by his last year in high school, he was writing, composing and conducting avant-garde arrangements for the school orchestra.

Musical Career

Frank Zappa launched his career as professional musician shortly after high school but income was sporadic; recordings brought in more money than local gigs—his racially diverse band, The Blackouts, bumped up against 1950s racism. There was some scoring of independent films, one commissioned by his high-school English teacher. A job at a recording studio led to acquiring it as a business but an entrapment arrest by local authorities over a "pornographic" audiotape, shut it down. Going back to the band route, Zappa joined The Soul Giants , soon converting them from a bar cover band to performing his original material—they morphed into The Mothers on Mother's Day, 1965.

But the band was starving, until impresario Herb Cohen (who's career credits include Pete Seeger, Alice Cooper, Lenny Bruce and Linda Ronstadt) took them on and began booking them at hotspots such as Whiskey A-Go-Go.

Their debut album, Freak Out! , launched them as The Mothers of Invention. It wasonly the second double rock album ever released—a groundbreaking mélange of musical genres both innovative and irreverent. That tone continued with their second album, Absolutely Free, and regular New York shows that were part concert, part free-for-all circus with stuffed animals and vegetables.

Their reputation established, they gained a European following as well with a memorable appearance with the London Philharmonic. But in 1971, serious setbacks occurred: during a concert in Switzerland, the venue went up in flames—the event was memorialized in Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." Just one week later, Zappa suffered an on-stage fall that resulted in serious injuries including a crushed larynx and multiple fractures—he was left with a limp, a lowered voice, and back pain for the rest of his life.

Never fully fitting into the rock genre anyway, partly due to his refusal to embrace its drug culture, he moved toward the formation of new bands with more of a jazz base. The decade of the '70s cultivated his reputation as one of the music industry’s most accomplished and demanding bandleaders. His prolific orchestral output was bisected by an unexpected Top 40 hit, "Valley Girl," performed with his daughter, Moon Unit, which funded more of his less commercially viable musical projects.

Other Projects

Outside of playing music, Zappa directed music videos, short films and features, and he became obsessed with the infinite possibilities synthetic music offered because it could accommodate almost most anything he dreamed up. Stints as a guest speaker on social activism emerged after his Senate testimony about censorship in music.

In 1990, Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel appointed Zappa as his cultural liaison officer, but Pesident George H.W. Bush soon quashed the appointment. Thereafter, Zappa briefly considered running for U.S. president.

While the general public's perception was often one of a kook, Zappa was deeply respected as a consummate musician and composer, an innovative filmmaker, and a prolific cross-genre artist.

Death and Legacy

Frank Zappa died from prostate cancer on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52, in Los Angeles. He was survived by his wife of 26 years, Gail Sloatman, who had managed much of Zappa's business concerns in his later career, and their four children: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen. After Zappa's death, his family released the statement: "Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6 p.m. Saturday."

In 1995, Frank Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; in 1997, he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.


  • Birth Year: 1940
  • Birth date: December 21, 1940
  • Birth State: Maryland
  • Birth City: Baltimore
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Musician Frank Zappa made more than 60 albums during his career. Flouting convention and fusing musical genres, Zappa's music was often politically charged and intentionally shocking.
  • Astrological Sign: Sagittarius
  • Chaffey Junior College
  • Antelope Valley Junior College
  • Occupations
  • Music Producer
  • Death Year: 1993
  • Death date: December 4, 1993
  • Death State: California
  • Death City: Los Angeles
  • Death Country: United States


  • Article Title: Frank Zappa Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/musicians/frank-zappa
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: July 31, 2019
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014
  • A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it is not open.
  • Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.

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He used his prodigious musical talent to challenge the status quo.

Frank Zappa was an outspoken critic of everything from the herd mentality of the middle-class to censorship of rock and roll. In his career, he worked with every genre from rock to jazz to classical music and produced sixty radical, groundbreaking and irreverent albums.

best frank zappa biography


By Dave Marsh

Frank Zappa deserves admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a great guitarist, songwriter, creator of concept albums, comedian, talent scout, doo wop expert, social critic and avid misanthrope. The Hall has already honored several of each, but Frank Zappa stands unique as the first inductee who also had a substantial career as a composer and performer of “serious” modem music.

His greatest importance to rock history was in bringing all these talents to bear at once. Not content to create a rock band with the chops and discipline to play 12-tone rows, he also created modernist works that incorporated “Louie Louie.”

Early in his career, Zappa co-wrote the Penguins’ “Memories of el Monte,” a classic West Coast doo-wop record and an evocation of an entire period in pop history.

Class of 1995

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The life and times of Frank Zappa – composer, satirist and towering giant of the electric guitar

Looking back at the career of the one-of-a-kind musician and guitar visionary

Frank Zappa performs on stage at Ahoy on 15th May 1982 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

The following is an excerpt from the February 1999 issue of Guitar World .

“There’s no single ideal listener out there who likes my orchestral music, my guitar albums and songs like Dyna-Moe-Hum ,” Frank Zappa told me in 1988. “That’s why sometimes I’ll do an orchestral album, and the people who like guitar stuff can’t stand it. And then a guitar album comes out, and the people who liked the orchestral album can’t stand that. But you know, they’re all my friends in their own way. So why not accommodate them all?”

Now that Frank is gone, it’s somehow comforting to reread those words. Frank Vincent Zappa was notoriously intolerant of the imperfections in human nature. With a few curt remarks, he could decimate an audience member foolish enough to shout out a song request, or a journalist presumptuous enough to concoct a half-assed theory about him. Yet he was willing to consider all of us who love his music as “friends.”

There are rabid Zappa fanatics out there who would insist that it is possible for one person to admire Zappa’s knotty, inventive orchestral compositions, his honking, brilliant guitar work and the prickly combination of sociology, satire and schoolboy scatological that went into his song lyrics. But it’s no small undertaking. 

Frank Zappa’s 60-album oeuvre is an imposing body of work. Some of the records are better than others, but the overall quality level is astonishingly high. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Zappa was still in top creative form at age 52, when he succumbed to prostate cancer – on December 4, 1993 – after battling the disease for several years.

We’ll never know what he would have achieved had he lived another 20 or 30 years. But we can console ourselves with the fact that, in the brief time allotted to him, he accomplished far more than most humans. 

Beyond his having been a superb composer and musician, Frank Zappa was also a committed and capable political activist, an innovative filmmaker, able businessman and one of our century’s all-around bona fide smart guys. He raised rock’s IQ more than a few notches.

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Frank's first steps

“Scientists believe that the universe is made of hydrogen, because they claim it’s the most plentiful ingredient. I claim that the most plentiful ingredient is stupidity.” That’s what Zappa said in an interview, just a few months before his death, with Pulse! magazine’s Dan Ouellette. 

The “hydrogen” quote was one of Frank’s favorites; it cropped up a lot in interviews down through the years. And in many ways, Zappa’s whole life was a battle against stupidity – the stupidity of mass media conformity, the stupidity of a greedy, inept, ignoble government, the stupidity of thinking it’s cool to be stupid.

Frank liked facts, so here are a few now: He was born on December 21, 1940, in Baltimore, Maryland. (His childhood is hilariously chronicled in his 1989 autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book [Poseidon Press].) 

When he was around 10 his family moved to the dismal suburban environs of Lancaster, California. There, he became interested in two strangely dissimilar forms of music: the black R&B and blues sounds of the day, and the early 20th century avant garde compositions of Edgard Varèse, Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky. 

Both influences can be heard throughout his music. But his blues inspiration is most strongly felt in his guitar work. In 1988, he told me about one of the key experiences of his youth:

“It was when I first heard the guitar solo in Three Hours Past Midnight , by Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. That’s probably one of the most important musical statements I ever heard in my life. And also the guitar solos on I Got Something For You and The Story of My Blues , by Guitar Slim. And Lover Man by Wes Montgomery.”

Another blues artist influenced Zappa in a way that is often overlooked. In a 1980 interview for Trouser Press , Frank told Michael Bloom that he first grew his trademark goatee and mustache because he “thought it looked good on bluesman Johnny Otis.”

As a teenager, Zappa played drums and guitar in a variety of local R&B hands. By the time he reached his early 20s, he’d owned and operated his own recording studio (Studio Z), composed B-movie scores, tried his own hand at filmmaking and co-authored a doo-wop tune called Memories of El Monte , which was recorded by the Penguins. 

Around 1964, Zappa took control of the R&B bar band he was then playing with – the Soul Giants – persuading them to try some songs he’d written. He also changed the name of the band to the Mothers, an event of incalculable sociological importance.

The Mothers came into their own on the mid '60s Los Angeles freak scene. It is generally accepted that hippiedom began in San Francisco. “But the scene in Los Angeles was far more bizarre,” Frank wrote in his autobiography. It was the L.A. underground that gave birth to the Doors, the Byrds, the Seeds and several other fine bands whose names have not become part of Official Rock History. Needless to say, the Mothers were far weirder than any of these acts.

In an era when even the “dangerous” rock bands were still pretty clean and cute, the Mothers were unkempt and ugly, and some of them would very obviously never see 25 again. The wild melange of sounds they generated included some decidedly unfashionable musical styles like doo-wop and lounge jazz. But at this particular juncture in cultural history, the weirder something was, the better it was generally esteemed to be. 

This was one of those times when record companies couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on with “those crazy kids” and their music, so they were signing all kinds of interesting acts with “no commercial potential.” This included the Mothers, who were offered a contract with MGM’s Verve label.

Freaking out the world

1966 saw the release of Freak Out!, the debut album by the Mothers of Invention. (The record company suggested adding “of Invention” to the band’s name, since the word “Mothers” by itself sounded too close to the popular shortened form of “motherfucker,” which – for reasons too complex to detail here – was a very potent word in the hippie counterculture of the mid to late '60s.)

By any reckoning, Freak Out! is one of the most influential rock albums of all time. It is generally considered the first “concept album” and also the first double album in rock. It contains the seeds of all Zappa’s later work.

The first two sides are devoted to songs – satirical, humorous, angry, topical, carefully and resourcefully arranged songs, played with exacting precision. On the second disc, the presentation grows increasingly free-form, culminating in The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet .

This piece takes up all of side four (pretty revolutionary in ’66) and offers an aural glimpse of “what freaks sound like when you turn them loose in a recording studio at one o’clock in the morning on $500 worth of rented percussion equipment,” to quote Zappa’s liner notes.

Freak Out! almost instantly acquired a reputation as the Number One Album to Take Drugs To, much to the chagrin of its composer, who was resolutely straight all his life

Freak Out! and the Mothers’ subsequent Verve albums did much to establish the Zappa mythology. Frank’s log cabin home at 2401 Laurel Canyon Blvd., in an L.A. neighborhood heavily populated by rock stars, assumed Olympian proportions in the minds of his fans. 

John Mayall even wrote a song about his stay there. Frank’s friends and associates – who bore names like Suzy Creamcheese, Dakota and Motorhead – acquired the larger-than-life stature of Zeus, Hera, Pan and Aphrodite to a generation of suburban teenage misfits. 

These youths felt tremendously empowered by Freak Out! , and its implication that not only was it okay to be a bit strange, frizzy-haired, unpopular and a little too intelligent, it was positively cool. 

But not everything about the Zappa myth was pleasing to the man at its center. Freak Out! almost instantly acquired a reputation as the Number One Album to Take Drugs To, much to the chagrin of its composer, who was resolutely straight all his life.

By 1967, Zappa and the Mothers had migrated to New York, where they began their now-legendary six-month residence at the Garrick Theatre in Greenwich Village. The Mothers basically moved into this decaying old 300-seater, doing two shows a night. Nobody could be certain in advance what was going to occur on any given evening. 

Frank Zappa

Jimi Hendrix was one of the notable musicians who came down to jam. But in many ways, it was the audience who often provided the real entertainment. Here, during the height of the Vietnam War, Zappa one night convinced three drunken Marines to attack a baby doll with a bayonet on stage.

According to eyewitnesses, the ensuing spectacle made a more powerful anti-war statement than any protest song or political speech ever could.

These “audience participation” segments were to become a popular element of Zappa concerts throughout his career. There’s something completely emblematic of his work in the contrast between the perfectionist discipline of his music and his willingness to entrust a portion of his concerts to some inebriated schmoes randomly selected from the crowd. 

It’s as though he wanted, not to impose order on chaos, but to incorporate chaos into the ordered perfection of his art. If the universe was gonna insist on being inherently stupid, Zappa was determined to find some positive, creative use for all that stupidity.

His entrepreneurial energies were boundless. 1967 also saw the release of his first solo album, Lumpy Gravy . The following year, after his relationship with Verve ended, he started two record labels of his own: Bizarre and Straight, both distributed by Warner/Reprise. Straight was Zappa’s label for presenting new talents he had discovered. 

It was Frank Zappa who brought the world the first recordings by Captain Beefheart and Alice Cooper, as well as less-well-remembered artists like folksinger Tim Buckley, the aptly named Wild Man Fischer and the GTOs. The last was a vocal ensemble comprised of Hollywood scenemakers – including kiss-and-tell rock diarist Pamela Des Barres – who apparently had enough “pull” to entice talents like Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart to perform on their disc.

Bizarre was the label for the Mothers’ own records. The first to appear on the new imprint was 1968’s Uncle Meat . This double-album set is another landmark Zappa work, exhibiting a compositional flair and a gift for woodwind arrangement that far exceeded anything that had come before. 

The liner notes describe this record as “an album of music from a movie you will probably never get to see.” Which was almost true. It took the invention of the VCR and the formation of Zappa’s own Honker Video company in the '80s for the world to see this bizarre cinematic document of the Mothers’ first incarnation.

My guitar wants to kill your mamma: Zappa in the '70s

Zappa had never abandoned the interest in moviemaking that he developed back in his pre-Mothers Studio Z days. But it wasn’t until 1971 that he was able to get a film into commercial release. This was 200 Motels , a surrealistic inquest into the proposition that “touring can make you crazy.” 

200 Motels deserves a place in film history because of the video editing and effects techniques that Zappa pioneered in making it. Also, it has become a perennial favorite among zonked-out midnight movie patrons everywhere.

The accompanying soundtrack album is an essential Zappa work for several reasons. For one, it fully exploited the considerable capabilities of the new Mothers of Invention lineup that Zappa had debuted on the previous year’s album, Chunga’s Revenge . Zappa disbanded the original Mothers in 1969, largely for economic reasons. (By this point, by the way, he was firmly ensconced back in Los Angeles.) 

The newly formed Mothers were fronted by humorists/vocalists Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, formerly of the mid '60s teen pop group, the Turtles. The lineup also included jazz piano ace George Duke and British drummer Aynsley Dunbar, fresh from a stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. True to form, Zappa had surrounded himself with a fantastically diverse assortment of musical personalities.

200 Motels was also the first recording on which Zappa fans got the opportunity to hear his music played by a real symphony orchestra, Britain’s Royal Philharmonic, under the baton of Elgar Howarth. In stark Zappa-esque contrast, 200 Motels was also one of the first albums where Frank played really heavy guitar. Even today, tracks like “Magic Fingers” and “Mystery Roach” stand up as sterling examples of mastodon unison riffology and extended fretboard exploration.

Zappa regarded his guitar solos as a form of “instant composition. It’s basically the same intellectual process that I would go through writing music on a piece of paper, except that I don’t have to write it down; it gets done right away. But it’s really no different. You have a certain amount of time that you’re going to fill up by making a piece of music. And you hope that the people who are working with you on stage are also interested in inventing music on the spot. When it works, which is not very often, I’m glad I have a recording truck. I can snag it. Because it’s gone after that. That’s the only time it exists.”

Zappa was incontestably one of the most interesting guitar soloists of all time. His blues grounding gave him an insistent earthiness, while his sense of avant garde, dadaist absurdity pushed him in directions that confounded all expectation. But more than anything else, it was his tone that made him a fiercely distinctive player. His guitar sounded like a gander with a bad sinus condition. He made brilliant use of a wah wah pedal, and was one of the few guitarists of the '70s and '80s to exploit the lower strings and fret positions to their full potential. He laughed when I complimented him on this.

“Well, I think most guitarists have a tendency to play in some way like they talk,” he said. “And since I’m not much of a squealer – I happen to be a baritone kind of guy – to play on the low strings is a little more in phase with my reality.”

Zappa really came into his own as a gonzo guitarist in the '70s. The decade’s inaugural year saw the release of his exquisite, heavily guitar-driven solo album, Hot Rats . The same year also brought the Mothers’ aforementioned Chunga’s Revenge and Weasels Ripped My Flesh . Both feature some flaming beauties of guitar solos. The latter album includes the original recording of Zappa’s axe anthem, My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mamma .

The lineup in Zappa’s bands changed regularly throughout the '70s and early '80s. His groups became increasingly polished from a technical standpoint as he found himself more and more able to draw on top session talent and noted players from every field of music. 

Zappa was a formidable, notoriously demanding band-leader. His band was generally recognized as a hothouse for extremely proficient players; it’s alumni include the guitarists Lowell George, Adrian Belew and Steve Vai.

Some fans of the original Mothers felt that Zappa’s work had become a little slick at this point. The truth is, however, that he’d always used session players. Examine the liner notes to Freak Out! and you’ll find studio aces like Carol Kaye – and even Lawrence Welk’s guitarist, Neil Le Vang – clearly credited. 

Frank never paid much attention to his musicians’ underground credibility. Original Mothers fans also tended to find Kaylan and Volman’s brand of humor a little too broad, obvious and infantile. A new legion of fans, however, liked it just fine.

What did happen during the '70s is that Zappa’s albums began growing more “unidirectional.” He began sorting out the different strands in his work. His early albums combined satire, serious composition, gross-out jokes and jazzy improvisation, all in one gloriously multifaceted package. Later on, he would focus on just one of these elements for any given album.

A record like 1973’s Overnite Sensation is heavy on humor, whereas The Grand Wazoo (1972) is mostly about composition and jazz-based soloing.

The highly specialized '80s

In the '80s, Zappa took this trend toward specialization to a new level with the release of the Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar series, an orgy of guitar solos and nothing else, directed straight at the coterie of Zappa axe junkies. 

By this point, he had started a new label, Barking Pumpkin , and his own marketing/mail order operation, Barfko-Swill, after his deal with Warner/Reprise and a subsequent arrangement with Mercury Records had gone sour. Zappa maintained close ties with his fans. Unlike many rock stars he was highly accessible.

“When we’re on the road there are kids who follow us from town to town,” he explained in 1988. “If we see the same faces when we arrive at the venue for an afternoon soundcheck, we let them in and they sit through the soundcheck. And you know, I talk to these people. They tell me interesting things. For example, a fan in Germany was the first to point out that there were incorrect dates and locations in the liner notes for You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore .”

Frank deemed this kind of networking essential in the face of what he regarded as an increasingly incompetent, crooked and imbecilic music industry. Marketing his own music was “the only way I can exist,” he told me. “There’s no way that what I do can fit within a corporate format. In the United States, radio is a cultural embarrassment. Most of the music that’s broadcast is harmful to your mental health.”

The early '80s brought many opportunities for Frank’s orchestral and chamber compositions to be recorded and performed. 1983 saw the release of the first London Symphony Orchestra disc, which was followed a year later by The Perfect Stranger: Boulez Conducts Zappa . 

During this period, there were also performances of Zappa’s music by ensembles such as the Kronos String Quartet and Aspen Wind Quintet. These developments were very gratifying to the composer, who had long sought an outlet for his more serious work. 

But he entertained no illusions about the classical music power structure. He found it every bit as frustrating and foolish as the pop music industry. Zappa was no snob.

“I have no following or any pretensions to a following in the normal classical consumer environment,” he told me in a 1984 interview. “The normal audience for an orchestral piece wouldn’t be caught anywhere in the vicinity of what I write. It’s just not relevant to their lifestyle, nor is it written for their tastes. Basically, the material is written to amuse me and anybody else who has a similar musical outlook.”

Zappa may have found his ideal musical collaborator in the Synclavier computer music system (a high-end music workstation), which also entered his life in the mid Eighties. “What I’ve been waiting for since I started writing music was a chance to hear what I write played without mistakes and without a bad attitude,” he said in 1984.

“The Synclavier solves that problem for me.” The Synclavier-based Jazz From Hell album won Zappa a Grammy in 1988. He was somewhat obsessed with the device. When I spoke to him in 1988 he estimated that he had some 500 new compositions stored on computer disc: “I work every night on that. My Synclavier hours are usually from about 11:00 at night until 7:00 in the morning.” Nocturnal in his work habits, Zappa preferred to be asleep while the rest of the world went about its dubious business.

Frank embraced the digital revolution wholeheartedly. As soon as the Compact Disc format established itself, he threw himself into the monumental task of remastering his entire back catalog for CD release through Rykodisk.

Later, he embarked on the equally ambitious Beat the Boots series for Rhino Records, offering quality masterings of his live concerts as an alternative to the unauthorized bootleg Zappa product that has been flooding the market ever since the Sixties.

The pristine digital perfection of the Synclavier took Zappa entirely away from guitar playing from 1984-’88; he said he didn’t touch the instrument once during that period. But in 1988, he assembled a band, its members culled from the cream of the players he’d worked with during the '80s – including guitarists Ike Willis and “stunt” axeman Mike Keneally – for a world tour. The results, which are among Zappa’s last public performances on guitar, can be heard on two discs: Broadway the Hard Way and The Greatest Band You Never Heard in Your Life .

Amid all these projects, Zappa also found time to become a vigorous political activist. In 1985, he testified at the U.S. Senate’s “porn rock” hearings. He became one of the most outspoken and eloquent campaigners against the censorship of rock music, a tireless free speech activist and protector of constitutional rights.

In 1989, after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Zappa was invited to Czechoslovakia by the country’s new president, Vaclav Havel, as an economic advisor. For several months, he acted as the country’s economic representative to the West. Zappa was increasingly drawn to politics. It’s reported that he was planning a serious presidential campaign.

This was one of many plans that were canceled when he was diagnosed as having prostate cancer in 1990. According to an article in Pulse! , the condition had been developing for some eight to 10 years before it was detected.

Rumors of Frank’s illness began to spread in the music industry shortly after the diagnosis. At first, they were widely disbelieved; it just seemed like another stupid, obviously untrue Frank Zappa story. But when the family confirmed the rumors, there was no more denying the grim fact.

Zappa continued working right up until the end. As a result he was able to see the release of one last recording of his music, The Yellow Shark , performed by Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern. This lavish and beautifully realized album reaches all the way back to compositions from Uncle Meat – a fitting end to a wondrously rich career.

But we’ve hardly heard the last of Zappa’s music. Frank’s unflagging creative energy left behind a legacy of unreleased compositions and recordings that will sustain us for many years to come. Not long after his death, Rykodisk released the superb Zappa orchestral work Civilization Phaze III . There has been a steady stream of Zappa reissues and compilations of previously unreleased material, including The Lost Episodes , Lather , Have I Offended Someone and Mystery Disc . Zappa’s unflagging creative energy left behind a musical legacy that will sustain us for many years to come.

“I am a realistic kind of guy,” Frank told Guitar World ’s John Swenson in 1982. “I just try and look at things the way they are, take them for what they are, deal with them, and go on to the next case. But Americans thrive on hype and bloated images and bloated everything. They turn away from anything that’s realistic. They want the candy gloss version of whatever it is.”

And that’s the one version that Frank never played.

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In a career that spans five decades, Alan di Perna has written for pretty much every magazine in the world with the word “guitar” in its title, as well as other prestigious outlets such as Rolling Stone , Billboard , Creem , Player , Classic Rock , Musician , Future Music , Keyboard , grammy.com and reverb.com. He is author of Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits , Green Day: The Ultimate Unauthorized History and co-author of Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Sound Style and Revolution of the Electric Guitar . The latter became the inspiration for the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibition “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll.” As a professional guitarist/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist, Alan has worked with recording artists Brianna Lea Pruett, Fawn Wood, Brenda McMorrow, Sat Kartar and Shox Lumania.

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Celebrating The Life And Times Of Frank Zappa On The Anniversary Of His Passing [Videos]

zappa, frank zappa death

Thirty years ago today Frank Vincent Zappa  passed away at the age of 52 after a long battle with prostate cancer. An immensely influential composer, musician, statesman, activist, and artist, Zappa never let anything stand in the way of speaking his mind and expressing his art. Over the course of his career, Zappa channeled his pioneering originality into a bafflingly long catalog of recorded music—both as a solo artist and with his band, the Mothers of Invention —employing a vast array of styles, genres, and approaches.

Prolific beyond compare, he released over 60 (!!) albums during his lifetime, ranging from avant-garde conceptual pieces to straight-ahead rock and roll to full classical symphony compositions. More than that, he accomplished all of this with a singular personal style as distinct as any we’ve seen before or since. Whether it was creating nonsensical tales of rebellion and inequity, playing blistering guitar solos, making surrealist movies, or writing essays and defending free speech to the highest powers in the country, everything Frank Zappa did was uniquely Frank Zappa .

The Top 50 Songs By Frank Zappa

The man was a fascinating blend of determination, wild talent, and relentless work ethic. Almost completely self-taught, Zappa haunted the libraries in his youth, studying feverishly to progress his dreams of becoming a composer, honing his abilities in every facet of music’s unending expanses. He demanded nothing less than the absolute best from himself and those he worked with—at all times, and in all areas. His tireless drive alienated some who tried to work with him, but his methods earned him the respect and loyalty of a core of fellow musicians, fans, and even critics.

The fervor of his fans is the stuff of legends. From his earliest days with The Mothers  (later, out of necessity, rechristened The Mothers Of Invention ), from rock operas to actual operas, fans followed Zappa through every transformation and permutation. His admirers ranged from other influential musicians like Jimi Hendrix , Paul McCartney , and Trey Anastasio , to senators, to housewives. European nations erected statues in his honor, and during his trips abroad he was treated as a sort of visiting diplomat. He’s had everything from bacteria to asteroids named in his honor by researchers and explorers.

Watch Frank Zappa speak about his band’s approach to live improvisation, how they picked the name of the band, and more in this 1974 interview for German television.

Frank Zappa interview 1974

[Video: cosmicrat ]

Entire bookshelves have been filled not just by Frank’s collected works, but by biographers and students of history. We honestly don’t have the space to give a proper examination of his life in words—we’d be here all day—so we thought we would honor the man in the most fitting way possible…through his music. What follows below is a partial examination of the many styles, genres, and eras of his work. Hopefully, the sampling below provides some insight into the mind of a true iconoclast.

In an era of “Happenings,” love-ins, and open social rebellion, it took a lot to shock people. The Mothers Of Invention managed to do just that with their debut album, Freak Out!  The music showed an intelligence and coherence that much of the material in that day lacked. Rather than simply raging against control, the Mothers dissected and eviscerated society’s conventions with a deft touch of which few, if any, were capable at the time. Here’s a playlist of their first album in its magnificent, game-changing whole.

The Mothers Of Invention –  Freak Out!  

[Video: The JukeboXx ]

His orchestral compositional style and storytelling prowess made an eventual transition to film writing and scoring a logical step. In 1971, he released the film 200 Motels , a scattershot madcap romp roughly based around an imaginary rock musical. The movie featured a number of well-known actors and musicians of the day, including Ringo Starr, Keith Moon , and even the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra . Crazy effects, original music, and laugh tracks abound. Watch the movie trailer below.

200 Motels  – Trailer

[Video: Paul ]

“Joe’s Garage”

Zappa wasn’t afraid of slipping some autobiographical details into his work, though he would often disguise them in the surreal landscapes he was creating. His industry legal issues were touched on in this now-classic album, which he once described as a “stupid little story about how the government is going to do away with music.” The three-part album touches on a wide swath of styles and uses unique recording processes like “xenochrony,” the practice of splicing old live solos into new studio recordings. Due to management greed and his battles with his labels, Zappa’s middle period was dominated by near-endless touring, as it was his only sure source of income. Listen to the album’s title track below.

Frank Zappa – “Joe’s Garage”

[Video: Iannis Tripis ]

“Cosmik Debris”

Zappa’s lyrics were often smokescreens for greater societal commentary. In the song “Cosmik Debris”, Zappa took on the self-help movement with a biting, snarky edge. A free thinker and avid student of life, people offering pre-packaged answers to difficult questions angered him as much as those who wanted to protect the status quo.

Frank Zappa – “Cosmik Debris”

[Video: Leo Doe ]

“Eat That Question”

Zappa’s music wasn’t all clanging bells, abstract percussion, and untamed guitar. He would toss in entire jazz albums that would easily stand among the work of his contemporaries in the genre. While recovering from an awful spill caused by a fan, he released two albums of pure jazz that caused his detractors to reevaluate their position that he was a one-trick pony. Here he is with legendary keyboardist George Duke on “Eat That Question”.

Frank Zappa – “Eat That Question”

[Video: BatteryHat ]

“Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”

Zappa was a storyteller, and one of his more memorable tales was that of an Eskimo named Nanook, and the trapper who confronts him with shocking results in the tune “Yellow Snow”. The song is a 10-minute wandering tale that changes perspective between the two characters and features many of the tropes established in his earlier works, boiled down to their essential elements. After hearing a three-minute edit of his 10-minute opus done by a Philadelphia DJ, Zappa created and released his own shorter version and was rewarded with his highest-charting single. Listen to the complete version of “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” below.

Frank Zappa – “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”

[Video: Viso Gonzalez ]

Zappa And The PMRC Senate Hearings

Zappa faced legal difficulties throughout his career for his often profane and jarring lyrical content. He lost a lawsuit against the venerable  Royal Albert Hall in London over their declining to allow him to mount a production at the theater because of their objections to his songs’ subject matter and the language used. His entire life and creative attention were focused on expanding the horizons in all directions, and he bristled at any restrictions. A well-spoken intellectual, he could convincingly debate these topics and was often called on to defend his thoughts in a variety of settings—none more important than the Parents Music Resource Center  Senate hearings, which debated the legality of Tipper Gore ‘s initiative to require parental “ratings” on albums and restrict music displaying certain themes.  He fought the “Washington Wives'” Initiative Committee over adding warning labels to albums, calling a spade “a spade”—and calling censorship “censorship.”

Frank Zappa at PMRC Senate Hearing

[Video: Siderussianlegsweep ]

“Valley Girl”

He did have some regrets, however. The highest-charting single of his later years, “Valley Girl,” would inspire a nation to adopt a style of speech and attitude that he personally reviled. The song was a condemnation of some of the people his daughter attended high school with, but it ended up catching the public’s attention for its outward silliness instead of its satirical meaning. The song went on to inspire hit movies, fashion trends, and thousands upon thousands of truly bad impressions.

Frank Zappa – “Valley Girl”

[Video: Chris Reno ]

“The Yellow Shark”

In his final years, Zappa was completely focused on his classical compositions, producing entire concertos and conducting them across Europe, where sold-out crowds were devouring his music with a passion that is rare among the traditionally staid appreciators of the field. Though his failing health necessitated a second conductor, the music produced at the end of his life mirrored the rest of his career: He made something only he could make, and he made it his way. Watch Frank perform a segment of The Yellow Shark in 1992 below.

Frank Zappa w/ The Ensemble Modern – The Yellow Shark

[Video: Gregarious ]

Rebelling Against His Declining Health

Zappa’s music was filled with whimsy, imaginary drama and social commentary. His use of lyrics as both storytelling devices and counterpoints to the musical compositions was unheard of and unmatched both then and now. He created a body of work second to none among his contemporaries, earning him recognition as one of the greatest musical composers in history. One of the great tragedies of humanity is the loss of centuries of music to the dust of time, Zappa himself was dismissive of his place in the annals of music. In this instance below, Zappa’s vision failed him.

Music is eternal. And true originality is so rare that it is not only to be celebrated but held close as the treasure it is. Zappa’s life’s work is exemplary of a mind not ahead of its time, but completely of its time. He crystallized the insanity of the world around him and made it into a wholly new, coherent, and insanely logical confection.

One of the last interviews he granted, the following shows him as he was at the end, defiant, creative, and still trying to speak his mind, as his body failed him.

Frank Zappa Interview  Today  1993

[Video: rohmer50 ]

Rest in peace, Frank Zappa, and thank you for the questions you asked, and the answers you found, and the lessons you taught us along the way.

[Originally published 12/4/17]

best frank zappa biography

The Frank Zappa albums you should definitely own

From the glorious to the impenetrable, Frank Zappa's best albums needs to be negotiated carefully – but it’s worth it

Frank Zappa studio portrait

A ferociously intelligent man, Frank Zappa always made the listener aware that he felt that he was ‘slumming it’ by playing pop music, yet he did more than anyone to push rock music forward, to explore the possibilities and transcend its limits. As well as being a freak icon, Zappa was one of the great ‘serious’ American composers of the latter half of the 20th century – something that is only now being acknowledged by the ‘classical’ establishment.

He was an uncompromising satirist, poking fun at both ‘square’ America and the hippie counter-culture with equal ferocity. More seriously, he was also an articulate spokesman for everything from ending the levy on recording tape to doing battle with the forces of censorship in the US Congress.

After playing drums in various bands as a teenager, Frank Zappa relocated to LA where he worked in advertising and ran a studio. In 1964 he joined local R&B band The Soul Giants as a guitarist. This band eventually became The Mothers Of Invention. A polymath, Zappa incorporated ideas from the avant garde – he was an obsessive aficionado of the music of European pioneers Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky – as well as from free jazz, advertising, film scores and more into rock music.

At a time when rock music was undergoing a revolution, the Mothers stood out from the hippie pack by dint of their cynicism, and Zappa’s experimental approach to the music that made the studio explorations of The Beatles seem tame by comparison.

Zappa continued to challenge his audience over the years, subverting their expectations at every turn, gleefully playing the role of square peg in a round-hole music industry he loathed throughout his career.

There are no bad Zappa albums, but it doesn’t follow that just because you enjoy the fusion of Hot Rats you will necessarily want to wade through his complex and impenetrable synclavier compositions which occupied his latter years. But for Zappa buffs, the distinction is moot.


Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention - One Size Fits All (1975)

Zappa’s mid-70s masterpiece, the rebirth of the Mothers, with fine cameo appearances from Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Captain Beefheart (uncredited for contractual reasons). Packed with ideas, it’s a comparatively straightforward album and probably Zappa’s most accessible.

Opening with the sci-fi funk of Inca Roads , the album flits across art rock ( Evelyn, A Modified Dog ), complex jazz rock instrumental ( Sofa No 1 ) and heavy rock (the amazing Can’t Afford No Shoes and San Berdino ) it and fits in neatly as one of the best rock albums of the 70s.

Frank Zappa - The Grand Wazoo (1972)

Frank Zappa - The Grand Wazoo (1972)

Zappa once said of this and its predecessor, Waka/Jawaka : “They sold a few copies in Scandinavia.” Well, maybe Scandinavians know a masterpiece when they hear it.

Although it was recorded back-to-back with Waka/Jawaka , The Grand Wazoo is superior in every way. It’s almost a continuation of the work he started on Hot Rats ; largely instrumental, with a heavy emphasis on brass and Zappa’s flowing guitar, it’s as close as he ever came to creating a straight jazz-rock album. It was also one of the best bands Zappa ever worked with and included trumpeter Sal Marquez and George Duke on keyboards.

Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention - We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)

Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention - We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)

Zappa’s best satirical work, mercilessly savaging the late- 60s flower-power culture. The sleeve parodies The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album, while songs like Who Needs The Peace Corps? and Flower Punk burst the balloon of hippie hubris. 

For all that it ribs the Grateful Dead set, however, it also appealed to the same fan base and is as much a classic album of that era as Live Dead . Presented as a sound collage, it is a little bit like flicking across the radio dial between Top 40 pap and ‘challenging’ soundscapes like The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny .

Zappa - Zoot Allures (1976)

Zappa - Zoot Allures (1976)

Although the cover depicts a band – Zappa, Patrick O’Hearn, Terry Bozzio and Eddie Jobson – only Zappa and Bozzio actually play on the album. Zoot Allures is a pretty stripped-down, straight-ahead rock album, flawed but with some amazing high points like the sensuous The Torture Never Stops and the guitar instrumentals Black Napkins and the title track. 

There’s a lot of mediocre parody, like opener Wind Up Working In A Gas Station and the blast at the Travolta craze of the time, Disco Boy. Zoot Allures certainly isn’t essential Zappa, but it is one of his most accessible for those from a rock background coming to his music for the first time.

Frank Zappa - Over-Nite Sensation (1973)

Frank Zappa - Over-Nite Sensation (1973)

The album that includes the notorious Dinah-Mo-Hum , along with some of Zappa’s other best songs in Zomby Woof , I’m The Slime and Montana . This marvellous, albeit short, album is the first steps towards the accessibility of Apostrophe (’) and One Size Fits All , and again showcases the musical talent he assembled for Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka .

If anything this is as close to a ‘typical’ Zappa album as you can get: sniggering scatological porno-rhymes like Dirty Love next to social commentary like I’m The Slime , a savage attack on TV, experimentalism and pop sensibilities, along with fantastic musicianship and composition.

Frank Zappa - Hot Rats (1969)

Frank Zappa - Hot Rats (1969)

Zappa’s first proper solo album, Hot Rats was a clean break from the cut-ups and sneering comedy of the Mothers. It was also Zappa’s first (almost) completely serious album.

Consisting of six tracks that range from the disciplined instrumental opener Peaches En Regalia to the rambling, extended jam The Gumbo Variations , the album was both a pinnacle of the jazz-rock fusion boom of the late 60s and one of the first albums to be dubbed (or cursed) ‘progressive’. Hot Rats is an album that you can get lost in, and one that, despite being more than 35 years old, never once sounds like a quaint period piece.

Frank Zappa - Sheik Yerbouti (1979)

Frank Zappa - Sheik Yerbouti (1979)

Sheik Yerbouti represents the diametric opposite of Uncle Meat : where that 1969 album is difficult to penetrate, Sheik Yerbouti is as close as Zappa came to chasing after commercial success. It even spawned a minor hit single in Bobby Brown Goes Down , and the disco send-up Dancin’ Fool .

If Zappa’s humour appeals to you, then this is probably going to be your favourite Zappa album, being full of (mostly dirty) jokes about Carter-era America. Most, like the Peter Frampton parody I Have Been In You , are toe-curling, but they are also brilliant songs. Nowhere is the great Zappa contradiction more marked.

Frank Zappa - The Man From Utopia (1983)

Frank Zappa - The Man From Utopia (1983)

Zappa’s 80s period tends to divide his hardcore fans. The trilogy of albums of which this is a part (and which also includes the albums Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch and Thing Fish ) includes some of Zappa’s best late-period material, as well as some of his worst.

The Man From Utopia includes the rather dreadful Luigi & The Wise Guys – a doo-wop slight return to the days of Zappa’s Cruising With Ruben & The Jets – and the unlistenable SEX . But it also has the magnificent Moggio , the amusing attack on the music biz Cocaine Decisions , and the bizarre 50s sci-fi homage The Radio Is Broken . Cautiously recommended.

Frank Zappa - Apostrophe (‘) (1974)

Frank Zappa - Apostrophe (‘) (1974)

Oddly, this was Zappa’s most commercially successful album (it was his first gold-selling disc), largely thanks to the freakish hit Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow . With guest appearances from fusion legend Jean Luc Ponty and ex- Cream bassist Jack Bruce, it’s a hard rock album that presents the listener with only a modicum of challenge, and includes some of his most memorable songs like the snaky and soulful Cosmik Debris and the comic-prog of St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast . 

As well as being one of his most musically accomplished albums – Zappa and the band spin musical cartwheels around one another – it’s also the funniest, though not without a dark side.

...and one to avoid

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Frank Zappa - Guitar (1988)

Frank Zappa - Guitar (1988)

This two-disc set of spliced guitar solos lifted from various live performances is a typically arch Zappa concept-joke. It’s actually hard to separate one solo from another, and in the end the whole thing just sounds like two-and-a-half hours of somebody noodling away aimlessly. 

But as there’s something to recommend every Frank Zappa record, at least the noodling is that of Zappa, although taken out of context the solos sound less impressive than they do in the songs they’re taken from. A definite case of less is less. Even if you’re a guitarist or a Zappa obsessive, there isn’t a great deal that you could actually learn from this.

A roundup of the rest…

Zappa and The Mothers also made some excellent live albums, the best of which are Fillmore East June 1971 , Just Another Band From LA and Broadway The Hard Way .

Zappa’s work in the 80s is best represented by 1982’s Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (which spawned his biggest-selling single, Valley Girl (and the already mentioned The Man From Utopia , his last really great ‘conventional’ rock studio album). Civilization , Phaze III , the last album Zappa completed, still divides fans. An opera-pantomime about people who live inside a piano, the project began in 1967 and was finished just before his death. It stands as a monument to all that was wilfully surreal, perverse and uncompromising about Frank Zappa.

Zappa may have despised the rock business, but he made some incredible hard rock, starting with the Satisfaction -like riff of Trouble Coming Every Day from Freak Out , and including the likes of the acidic blues jam Willy The Pimp from Hot Rats , and I’m The Slime from Over-Nite Sensation . Only Zappa could fuse Iron Butterfly with The Rites Of Spring , as he did on In A Gadda Stravinsky . The closest he came to an actual metal track was Wind Up Working In A Gas Station (on Zoot Allures ), although he did murder Led Zeppelin ’s Stairway To Heaven on The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life .

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Allan McLachlan spent the late 70s studying politics at Strathclyde University and cut his teeth as a journalist in the west of Scotland on arts and culture magazines. He moved to London in the late 80s and started his life-long love affair with the metropolitan district as Music Editor on  City Limits  magazine. Following a brief period as News Editor on  Sounds , he went freelance and then scored the high-profile gig of News Editor at  NME . Quickly making his mark, he adopted the  nom de plume  Tommy Udo. He moved onto the  NME 's website, then Xfm online before his eventual longer-term tenure on  Metal Hammer  and associated magazines. He wrote biographies of Nine Inch Nails and Charles Manson. A devotee of Asian cinema, Tommy was an expert on 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano and co-wrote an English language biography on the Japanese actor and director. He died in 2019. 

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Music is the Best: Considering Frank Zappa’s Legacy

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Frank Zappa died 30 years ago.

Zappa, one of music’s grandest iconoclasts, lost his multi-year battle with prostate cancer on December 4, 1993. Had he lived, the leader of The Mothers of Invention, who sang “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” made cult-classic film 200 Motels , and released over 60 albums would turn 83 this December.

Considering his myriad accomplishments , it’s easy to wonder what more Zappa would have done. How would he approach the streaming era? Would he work with a new generation of experimental artists? And would Zappa return to rock after hanging up his guitar in the ’88?

Or one could ask what Zappa posed at the climax of his album, Joe’s Garage : “Ultimately, who gives a fuck anyway?”

An outsider among outsiders, Zappa was a self-taught rocker with a classically focused mind, a freak at odds with the freak scene, and an iconoclast who clashed with music labels and senators. He made music both inexplicably weird and indescribably beautiful, often within the same song. He was irreverent and sanctimonious, and one hell of a guitar player. 

“Brimming with sophisticated motifs and convoluted rhythms, Zappa’s extended excursions are more akin to symphonies than they are to guitar solos,” wrote Tom Kolb for Guitar World in 2007. Frank’s eldest son, Dweezil Zappa, described his father’s technique to Guitar Player in 2021 as creating “air sculptures” and that Frank “didn’t subscribe to the pre-composed solo approach. He preferred playing live in the studio, and when playing live, he loved to be inspired in the moment to spontaneously compose onstage.”

Zappa didn’t seek to become a guitar god. “I am not a virtuoso guitar player,” he wrote in 1989 memoir The Real Frank Zappa Book . “A virtuoso can play anything, and I can’t. I can play only what I know , to the extent that I’ve developed enough manual dexterity to get the point across.”

Zappa was more than just six strings and a smirk. Because most of his multifaceted work is guitar-driven, his music gets filed as “rock.” Yet, those who dive in will find a rich sound inspired by classic rhythm and blues, avant-garde sonic compositions, and classical music.

The two “greatest hits” collections released since his passing ( Strictly Commercial and Zappatite ) provide a good sampling of his work. “Peaches En Regalia” and “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” showcase Zappa’s remarkable skills with a guitar. “You Are What You Is,” “Cocaine Decisions,” and “Trouble Every Day” demonstrate his political mindset, while “Dancin’ Fool,” “Cosmik Debris,” and “Dirty Love” are good examples of his sense of humor.

There are also captivating moments within these sample sets. The vocal arrangement of Tina Turner and The Ikettes on “Montana” shows what a powerhouse vocalist she was, able to do Zappa’s vocal arrangement justice. “Zoot Allures” is one of Zappa’s signature instrumental tracks, conveying a somber, introspective tone. And the orchestral “Strictly Genteel” hints at the composer’s mind hiding behind one of rock’s best mustaches.

For newcomers, these are arguably the best way to begin exploring Zappa’s work. His discography is so expansive that The Onion ’s 2004 article “ Frank Zappa Fan Thinks You Just Haven’t Heard The Right Album ” still stings (mocking both his absurdly large catalog, as well as his fanbase’s obnoxiousness). It’s even more relevant in 2023 since Zappa’s posthumous releases now outnumber the albums he put out during his lifetime.

Zappa’s work is a tapestry with threads that can be followed from his initial work to his final recordings. These recurring themes throughout his oeuvre are what Zappa called his “conceptual continuity” and show another reason why he matters: from the get-go, he had a firm hand in shaping his creative work, and he never lost focus on his distinct voice. That thread runs from the Dadaism-infused rock of The Mothers of Invention’s first album Freak Out!, the orchestral to musique concrète soundscape of Zappa’s debut solo record Lumpy Gravy , in the jazz-fusion works of Hot Rats and The Grand Wazoo, and the electronic symphony of Jazz From Hell and The Perfect Stranger . Even Zappa’s visual works— Uncle Meat and 200 Motels —are wrapped up in his signature artistic approach. It’s why Zappa-devotee “Weird” Al Yankovic was able to successfully parody Frank’s style on “Genius In France” (featuring a guitar solo from Dweezil Zappa).

The actual argument for why Frank Zappa deserves consideration 30 years after his passing is what he made while he was alive and how he made it. Zappa developed his creative approach early in his life. His childhood obsessions were explosions and editing, turning drugstore popgun caps into pyrotechnics, and splicing scenes of sci-fi films into his parents’ home movies.

That love of editing carried on through his career. Early on, Zappa would drop elements of Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” into Mothers of Invention performances. He recorded his concerts, and later on would splice pieces of different performances into new compositions. Zappa later edited together songs with different elements (e.g. lacing a Patrick O’Hearn bass solo in one time signature over a Terry Bozzio drum track in a different signature for the song “Rubber Shirt” off Sheik Yerbouti.)

Zappa’s humor, curiosity, and scientific interests would have resulted in him growing up to become the best substitute science teacher ever—except he never developed a taste for the American educational system. “By the time I was six years old, I knew how to make gunpowder,” he wrote in the memoir, detailing how he, the son of a chemist/mathematician working in the U.S. Defense industry, had no patience for institutional learning. “I grew up with poison gas and explosives—with the children of people who built these things for a living,” he wrote. “Did I give a fuck about algebra?”

Zappa had one transformative moment in high school, though. He discovered how music worked after bringing a copy of The Jewels’ “Angel In My Life” to his Mission Bay High band instructor. 

“‘Listen to this,’ I said,” wrote Zappa , “‘and tell me why I like it so much.’ ‘Parallel fourths,’ [the teacher] concluded.”

Here, he learned how music was constructed, composed . He could learn how to make music, and like the explosive caps and home movies he played with as a youth, he could deconstruct it and reassemble it to how he liked it.

Zappa taught himself the norms so he could deviate from them and had some guides in his journey. Some of his earliest influences were Stravinsky, Anton Webern, and Edgard Varèse, the latter of which had a profound effect on Zappa by challenging him to think about what music could be with his “Ionisation” piece. Zappa’s 1963 appearance on The Steve Allen Show— where he played a bicycle along with the house band (after instructing them to “make any noise possible on your instrument [and] try to refrain from musical tone”)—is an early example of him utilizing the lessons he gleaned from the experimental French composer.

With the original Mothers of Invention, Zappa first shared his compositional ear, creating such early pieces like the sweeping regality of “The Duke of Prunes,” the intricate waves of the captivating “Aybe Sea,” and “King Kong,” a swinging instrumental that would be a staple of Zappa’s live performances throughout his career.

Rhythm and blues captivated a young Zappa the same way Stravinsky and Varèse did, and was much easier for a young Zappa to play with a rock band than a full orchestra. So he founded The Blackouts, a multiracial group that didn’t always go over well with conservative Lancaster, California. At first, Zappa took up the drums before switching over to guitar. As Zappa lore states, a failed attempt to run a recording studio (and film a movie with his high school friend, Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart ) and a successful entrapment sting by the Cucamonga police had Zappa in dire straits. Had things gone differently, he might not have accepted the offer from his friend, Ray Collins, who said his band, The Soul Giants, was looking for a new guitar player.

“Frank came down and tried out with the band, and he liked what we did, and we liked what he did, so he joined,” said Jimmy Carl Black , drummer and original member of The Mothers of Invention, in Necessity Is , author Billy James’ book about the early years of the band. “A month later,” adds Black, “the saxophone player, Davey Coronado, left the band, leaving the position of leadership wide open. Frank took over as leader, and his very words were, ‘If you play my music, I will make you rich and famous.’”

Zappa took lead of the Soul Giants and renamed the group The Mothers in 1964. The Mothers of Invention—renamed, cleverly, out of necessity —released several albums. The landmark debut, Freak Out! , challenged what “hippie” music could be with its rhythm and blues-inspired rock, otherworldly sound compositions, and biting social commentary. Those early albums— Absolutely Free, We’re Only In It For The Money, and Uncle Meat —laid the foundation for Zappa’s career.

However, the foundation wasn’t strong enough for the rest of the Mothers of Invention. Zappa disbanded the group in 1969 over money and creative issues.

“I think he was just tired of the band,” said woodwinds/sax player Bunk Gardner in Necessity Is . “Certainly, we were criticized many, many times about how badly we played with his music … He probably thought it would be less of a drain financially as well because, at the point, we were making a salary of $250 a week, and I think it was too much of a drain on him.”

The last thing [Zappa] would want is a sheen of nostalgia glossing over the cracks.

Zappa reformed The Mothers shortly afterward, featuring Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of The Turtles. This period, albeit short-lived, leaned into the rock and the theatrical element of Zappa’s music. During this time, Zappa would begin to build up a reputation as a remarkable guitar player, which he cemented with second solo album, Hot Rats .

The second Mothers dissolved as band members sought work while Zappa recuperated from a violent attack in December 1971. A deranged fan pushed him off the stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre. The attack left Zappa with a crushed larynx, head trauma, and numerous fractures to where he was reliant on a wheelchair for months.

After the recovery, Zappa resumed performing under his own name. Backing him was a band with a roster of musicians that included the late George Duke, Napolean Murphy Brock, Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, Patrick O’Hearn, Adrian Belew, Ruth Underwood, Warren Cuccurullo, and Ike Willis.

Zappa’s touring and public performing days ended in 1988 when he cut the tour short after his band revolted against the inclusion of bassist Scott Thunes , who was known to be brutally honest and blunt when running the rehearsals ahead of the tour. “I don’t like having a whole band ganging on me, forcing me to get rid of a bass player I liked,” Zappa told Musician magazine, per Barry Miles’s Zappa biography.

Instead, Zappa cut the tour short. His final performance in the U.S. was on March 25, 1988, at New York’s Nassau Coliseum. (The recording of the show has since been released as the 119 th entry in his discography.)

Three years before Zappa quelled the band rebellion by pulling the plug on the whole outfit, members of the original Mothers—Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner, Ray Collins, Art Tripp, and “Motorhead” Sherwood—sued Zappa for $16.4 million for unpaid royalties, claiming they hadn’t received a payment since 1969. The trial was settled out of court, and the members have not spoken about the settlement, according to Miles’ Zappa biography. 

“Music comes from composers—not musicians,” wrote Zappa in The Real Frank Zappa Book . “Composers think it up; musicians perform it.”

These aspects of Zappa’s legacy deserve as much consideration as his music on the 30th anniversary of his death. The last thing he would want is a sheen of nostalgia glossing over the cracks.

Zappa found himself at odds with musicians and musicians’ unions; the latter gave Frank a headache (and cost him a lot of money) during his attempts to get his orchestral work performed. These attitudes would carry over to unions in general: “Flakes,” from Sheik Yerbouti , states that unions are there to protect mediocre work, and he would revisit them on songs like “We Got To Stick Together” and “Rudy Wantz To Buy Yez A Drink.” These comments (along with the “Fuck the union” he says at the start of 2016’s Eat That Question: Zappa In His Own Words documentary) would be out of place during this past Solidarity Summer.  

In 1989, Zappa worked with the Synclavier synthesizer to create orchestral works, most notably the Grammy-winning Jazz From Hell . At the time, he was excited that he didn’t have to deal with human musicians and justified using technology instead.

“Listen to the radio—a lot of what you think is being played by Beautiful Rock Stars is actually being played by machines like the Synclavier,” he wrote while relaying a story about how a producer brought in a group, sampled their instruments and had the machine play their instruments for them.

Zappa’s enthusiasm for new technology suggests he may have been a proponent of modern A.I. He’d be fascinated using these programs to create music. But, Zappa acknowledged in his memoir that machines can’t improvise and that spontaneity is more valuable than being able to play the music with precision. Even he was reluctant to admit that if he had to choose between the machine and the musician, “from time to time, I’m almost tempted to opt for the ‘human element.’”

This isn’t to say Zappa completely disliked his former band members. Had his cancer diagnosis not coincided shortly after the destruction of the ’88 band, he may have tried it once again. And in his final days, he reached out to those he worked with to reconnect before it was too late.

Though Frank shared the stage with a litany of incredible talents, the number of female members of his band is drastically few. “I just don’t think it’s practical,” Zappa said to Howard Smith in 1971, per blank on blank . “I don‘t think that there‘s a girl around that would fit in with what we do.” At this time, the Mothers’ music focused on hormonal/sophomoric themes like the urban legend of a groupie having sex with a fish (“The Mud Shark”), picking up women in clubs, and the struggles of being a touring rock band.

Yet Zappa also oversaw the creation of The GTO’s, the all-girl ‘60s group featuring Pamela Des Barres ( I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie ). He also produced their only album, Permanent Damage , which he released on his Straight Records label. 

Following the dissolution of the reassembled The Mothers, Zappa’s next group would feature percussionist Ruth Underwood. He would also produce work featuring vocalists Kris Peterson, Thana Harris, and Dale Bozzio (while performing live with singer Lisa Popeil in 1981).

Zappa’s lyrical content may also be a turnoff to those first hearing “Easy Meat,” “He’s So Gay,” and “Jewish Princess” for the first time—the latter of which drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League. “As if to say there is no such thing as a ‘Jewish Princess.’ Like I invented this?” Zappa told Spin in 1991, per Miles’ biography.

Zappa’s lyrical approach, for better or for worse, has always been from his firsthand sociological viewpoint. “My lyrics are there for entertainment purposes only – not to be taken internally ,” Zappa wrote in his 1989 memoir, The Real Frank Zappa Book . “Some of them are truly stupid, some are slightly less stupid, and few of them are sort of funny.” Whether or not he would still perform “Bobby Brown Goes Down” (arguably one of his most controversial works) had he lived into his 60s and 70s remains unanswered.

There is some poignancy in these “truly stupid” words. “I’m the Slime,” from 1973’s Over-Nite Sensation, denounced the media as “ the tool of the government / and industry too / for I am destined to rule / and regulate you .” Had he lived long enough to see the rise of “fake news,” influencers, and reality television, Zappa could have easily re-issued the song with a minor lyric update and still cut close to the bone. 

This distrust of authoritarianism was spun into Joe’s Garage , a rock opera depicting a world where music was illegal (a reality he witnessed with the Iranian revolution of 1979.) As books are pulled from the shelves of American public libraries and public schools struggle under tightening restrictions over what parts of history they can and cannot mention, it seems that the Central Scrutinizer, Joe’s Garage narrator/antagonist who “enforces all the laws that haven’t been passed yet,” is alive and well—and likely running the Moms For Liberty Discord.

Zappa’s Thing-Fish , a failed attempt at a Broadway production, also weaved in elements of government malfeasance by incorporating themes like AIDS, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the “Women’s Lib” movement, and “beige” supremacy.

Though Zappa was a critic of the U.S. government, he was a staunch believer in the rights granted under the country’s Constitution. His dedication to unfettered creative expression led him to testify in 1985 in front of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in a hearing over “the subject of the content of certain sound recordings and suggestions that recording packages be labeled to provide a warning to prospective purchasers of sexually explicit or other potentially offensive content.”

The hearing was a result of efforts by the Parents Music Resource Center to get music labeled the same way films are rated and have albums with explicit covers wrapped similar to porn magazines or kept under the counter at stores. Zappa, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and John Denver spoke out against what they saw as censorship. Ultimately, the Recording Industry Association of America opted for self-regulation by using the “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” sticker. (Audio from the Senate hearing would be remixed into “Porn Wars,” on his 1985 release, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention .)

Throughout the 1980s, Zappa railed against the Religious Right, from Pat Robinson to Ronald Reagan. “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk,” from 1988’s Broadway The Hardway , theorized that “the rights of ‘certain people’ [would] disappear” if those “God-loving” Christians were to be elected to office. As of November 2023, the American Civil Liberties Union lists over 500 anti-LGBTQ bills in the U.S., most being introduced in local legislatures. 

Zappa’s politics didn’t lean leftward, necessarily. He described himself as a “practical conservative” in his book, who wanted to do away with income tax, have a sensible defense budget, end prohibition on drugs, legalize suicide, and that “Israel has a right to exist AND the Palestinians are entitled to their own state.”

Zappa’s philosophy is probably best summed up in 1981’s “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing” : “ Do what you want / do what you will / just don’t mess up your neighbor’s thrill / And when you pay the bill / kindly leave a little tip / And help the next poor sucker / On his one-way trip .”

Some elements of Zappa’s work and perspective remain current (for better or worse), though rock itself has faded from mainstream relevancy in the past three decades, jazz and classical even more so. With Zappa’s music being built on all three, would that mean he’d fade into obscurity?

Countless artists proudly cite him as an inspiration. John Frusciante, Genesis P-Orridge, Henry Rollins, Devin Townsend, Devo, Can, and others have spoken highly about him or cited him as an influence. The sadly-abandoned Wiki Jawaka likewise mentions Terry Gilliam, Matt Groening, progressive metal legends Dream Theater (and more) as fans. Fiend Without A Face, the surf-inspired project from Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds, included “Zappa” on their 2017 album, a loving pastiche/tribute to his work.

Most recently, Haim celebrated August 18 (or 8.18, the area code for the San Fernando Valley) with a TikTok set to “Valley Girl,” Zappa’s song featuring his then-teenage daughter, Moon Unit Zappa, and his only Top 40 hit in the U.S.

Though Zappa’s instrumental work would be rich fodder for sampling (assuming the rights could be cleared), his appearances in hip-hop have been few. One could point to his somewhat obscure nature preventing his work from being a more attractive sample since recent hip-hop has relied on automatic nostalgia for commercial success. 

However, he still has managed to be reworked into some beats. Madlib sampled “Sleeping In A Jar” on “Meat Grinder,” one of the tracks from Madvillian’s Madvillainy (Madlib’s collaborative project with MF Doom). Madlib also wove Zappa samples throughout the remix album Madvilliany 2 . He also sampled Zappa on Rock Konducta Pt. 1 and visually cited The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out on the cover of The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, an album by his alter-ego, Quasimoto. Tyler, The Creator used “Sleeping In A Jar” in “Fuck This Election,” while Pharoahe Monch, J Dilla , and Busdriver have also mined Zappa’s work for samples.

As contemporary artists go, Thundercat has arguably been the biggest Zappa flagbearer in recent years. “I remember playing Billy Cobham’s Total Eclipse for Snoop Dogg. I also played him Frank Zappa, Apostrophe ,” Thundercat told NPR in 2013. “And I played him ‘Saint Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast.’ Snoop was sitting there with a blunt in his mouth and just listening to Frank Zappa go off. … He loved it. He was like, ‘This is fly. This is some cool stuff.'”

Critics compared Thundercat’s intricate and eclectic sound to Zappa’s, and the bassist has also called Frank “a genuine solar flare” of an influence on his art.

“Zappa was the one,” he said during a 2017 appearance on Q with Tom Power . “Every last part of what [Zappa] did was amazing.” He would echo that praise three years later, telling GQ , “There are these moments that are genuinely golden in Frank Zappa’s music.”

One of the first tributes to Zappa came a month after his death when Comedy Central aired the “Village of the Giants” episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 . It included the original song, “Let Me Be Frank About Frank,” initially meant as a tribute to the character of TV’s Frank. But, as the music played over the end credits, the episode ended with a memorial to Zappa, just as host Mike Nelson said, “Goodbye Frank. You were enjoyed.”

“He is one of my great heroes of American culture,” wrote MST3k writer and actor Kevin Murphy in The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide . “When all his tapes are played, and his music is studied, I’m guessing he’ll go down as one of the finest composers and performers of the century. And God, was he ever funny. Sometimes embarrassingly, preachy, but always calmly polemical, like an advocate for reason in a world gone mad and stupid.”

Did he matter? Zappa himself didn’t think so.

“It’s not important to even be remembered,” he remarked during an interview on the May 1993 episode of the Today Show . It would be one of his last interviews; he wouldn’t survive the year. Zappa seemed to know that while talking with NBC’s Jamie Gangel because he spoke with a calm, reserved tone, seemingly resolved about his fate. When the discussion came to his legacy, he waved off any notion that he should be considered a “rock legend” (“Pathetic,” he spat when Gangel brought up the term.) Eccentric genius? “Eccentric, yes. Genius? Maybe.”

“It’s not important [to be remembered.] The people who worry about being remembered are guys like [Ronald] Reagan and [George H. W.] Bush,” he said. “These people want to be remembered. And they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that remembrance is just terrific . And I don’t care.”

However, Zappa is remembered. His posthumous releases continue to reveal his creative process, and his work earns new fans today. He had flaws, which deserve to be considered when looking back at his legacy. The cringey lyrics, his fraught history with his band members, and his arrangement with his wife Gail Zappa (an “I’m a rockstar on the road with groupies” setup, as explained in the Zappa documentary) were factors in his life and will always be the shadow anchored to his spotlight.

Zappa’s work should not be overburdened by the man behind it. He proved that if you’re one of those people with “a big nose and some weird hair,” you can forge your path. Zappa was never going to be mainstream—his music was too classical to be rock, too rock to be classical. He was a weirdo among the weirdos, opinionated and unrepentant in his viewpoints but one who knew that progress was only possible through deviation.

Zappa warrants consideration after all these years because in spite of everything, he did things his way. It wasn’t always successful, and it was rarely profitable, but he made it happen. If anything, Zappa’s life stands as a testament to that spirit. He maintained a commitment to an uncompromising creative vision until his final days.

Zappa asked, “Ultimately, who gives a fuck, anyway?” before “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” a song on Joe’s Garage that, in the narrative, was the last guitar solo ever played on earth. Joe’s Garage also provided a snippet that remains a more fitting epitaph to his legacy: 

“Information is not knowledge / Knowledge is not wisdom / Wisdom is not truth / Truth is not beauty / Beauty is not love / Love is not music / Music is the best!”

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Frank Zappa’s Greatest Albums Ranked!

Composer, guitarist, iconoclast. mojo pays tribute to the godfather of invention, with a rundown of frank zappa's ten essential albums..

Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention

“In every town there’s one screwball, a bit of an outcast who is ridiculed but also perhaps slightly revered because he may dare to think differently. He may like our music,” proclaimed Frank Zappa in 1967, on the eve of the release of the first Mothers Of Invention LP Freak Out! In the ensuing 26 years, until his death on December 4, 1993, Zappa revelled in his outsider status, channelling his anger through his work and using humour as much as his virtuoso talent to create some of the most challenging and provocative music of the Twentieth Century.

His body of work ranges from psychedelia, hard rock, jazz-fusion, progressive rock, doo-wop, avant-garde to modern classical music. Such was his prolific nature that when your correspondent met him a few months before his death, he was unsure whether he’d released 52 or 54 albums. The labyrinthine complexity of his catalogue has since extended to over 75 albums - a world in which the listener can truly get lost. As a result Zappologists have long and often highly charged conversations over his most essential recordings. Ask 10 Zappa fans for his best albums and you’re likely to get 10 different lists, followed by a series of explanations and the odd revision. This selection should therefore act as a primer for the great man’s work. Those seeking a compilation by way of introduction should possibly ask their FZ-loving pal to compile a playlist. Failing that, the next best thing is possibly the Zappa’s Picks collection compiled by Primus guitarist Larry Lalonde, which outstrips the 16 track Best Of offering released on Rykodisc in 2004. The latter is unsatisfying, gathering Zappa’s most popular tunes but underlining the fact that a real introductory anthology is sorely missing. As our list suggests, however, Freak Out! is as good a place as any to begin your journey into Zappa-dom.

Frank Zappa And Ensemble Modern

The Yellow Shark


best frank zappa biography

Zappa enjoyed a love-hate relationship with classical music. While he admired modern day composers, he loathed the fact that classical performances were often such matters of ceremony. His own classical forays were at times disappointing (the exhumation of material by his baroque namesake, Francesco Zappa, for the material that made up 1984’s album of the same name being a case in point), but  The Yellow Shark  isn’t one of them. Introduced by FZ, conductor Peter Rundel leads the Frankfurt-based Modern Ensemble through 19 tracks culled from Zappa’s canon and proves just how well suited his material is to such orchestral treatment, G-Spot Tornado and all.

You say: “An essential stop, and I recommend to book a hotel.” Osgood, via mojo4music

Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention


best frank zappa biography

Having courted controversy through his lyrics, Zappa’s sixth album was designed to place the focus firmly on his instrumental prowess by containing “music from The Mothers’ movie of the same name which we haven’t got enough money to finish yet”. The result is rich with Zappa’s arch and artful compositions typified by the dissonant guitar workout of Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution and recurring motifs of Dog Breath and King Kong. Housing a flimsy concept –  Uncle Meat  kidnaps a rock’n’roll band and drugs them in a bid to use them and music to secure world domination – the album itself remains a meditation on Nixon’s America.

You say: “Ridiculously inventive playing… general batshit insanity.” Conform to deform, via mojo4music

Frank Zappa

Chunga’s Revenge


best frank zappa biography

Featuring the talents of comedic harmonists Flo & Eddie, Chunga’s Revenge upset a number of hardcore Mothers fans due to the incorporation of the vocal duo. Away from such petty prejudices, Chunga’s Revenge remains one of Zappa’s most consistent, not to mention heavy sets – the latter showcased by clattering opener Transylvanian Boogie and the righteous supplication of Tell Me You Love Me, both of which sit alongside jazzier moments like Road Ladies, Twenty Small Cigars and The Nancy And Mary Music. The title track sees sax player Ian Underwood using a wah-wah on his alto and also showcases Zappa’s dexterity as a guitar player.

You say: “An overlooked work… the title cut makes it all worthwhile.” Jedd Beaudoin, via mojo4music

Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III


best frank zappa biography

Narrated by the spook-voiced Central Scrutinizer – a governmental agent whose job is to “enforce laws that haven’t been passed yet” –  Joe’s Garage  is a three-disc, 19-track anti-censorship opera. As if to inflame the politically correct, Zappa himself appears as a blacked-up janitor on the sleeve and packs in a sexist threesome of tracks - Catholic Girls, Crew Slut, Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt – for good measure (itself viewed from a “stupid-looking white sort of male person’s” point of view). For all of its caustic intent and outrage, the album’s finest moment is Watermelon In Easter Hay – a beautiful guitar instrumental and one of Zappa’s most celebrated pieces.

You say: “Simply Zappa's best concept album/social satire/manifesto.” Cowtools, via mojo4music

Lumpy Gravy


best frank zappa biography

Having quoted modern composer Edgard Varèse on his debut LP, with his fourth album Zappa turned his hand to a post-modern orchestral work in two movements – both over 15 minutes each and which provided the listener with an aural collage that remains both puzzling as well as utterly absorbing over 40 years later. A lesson in how to deconstruct rock music,  Lumpy Gravy  remained Frank’s favourite album and is the equivalent of spinning through your radio dial and enjoying snatches of unconnected dialogue, moments of static and random music ranging from surf rock to surrealist toy tunes and classical menace.

You say: “Makes the other LPs seem accessible.” Mark Hughes, via email

See where Lumpy Gravy came in MOJO's rundown of The 50 Weirdest Albums Ever!


best frank zappa biography

Originally intended for release as a four-record box set, Warner Brothers refused to release  Läther  so Zappa re-formatted the music into four albums – namely  Zappa In New York ,  Studio Tan ,  Sleep Dirt  and  Orchestral Favourites  – fulfilling his contractual obligations in one fell swoop. When the label refused to pay him for his work, in December 1977 Zappa broadcast the album on the radio and invited fans to tape it.  Läther  finally emerged in its intended form as a posthumous three-CD set and remains the most complex of his widely available work, and a sprawling critique of the excesses of rock music.

You say: “The full Zappa gamut… get it.” Pete Garner, via email


Roxy And Elsewhere


best frank zappa biography

While there are a vast number of FZ live sets, this is his most satisfying capturing the band of Zappa, George Duke, Chester Thompson (drums), Tom Fowler (bass), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Ruth Underwood (percussion) and Napoleon Murphy Brock (vocals) at the height of their powers. The spoken preamble to Penguin In Bondage leads into a set of virtuoso performances that are quite staggering, the apex of which is Echidna’s Arf (Of You) and Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing? Existing video footage of the Roxy shows confirms that at that time Zappa’s band were one of the most fluid and exciting outfits out there.

You say: “Super-technique with real soul… awe-inspiring.” Salmacis, via mojo4music

One Size Fits All


best frank zappa biography

While Zappa enjoyed bona fide commercial success with  Overnight Sensation  and  Apostrophe  (the latter ’74 set reaching Number 10 in the US), this nine-track affair is the most satisfying of his so-called funky ‘70s period, its title and content reflecting on capitalism’s endgame. Musically, the album revolves around the twin axis of soul - Inca Roads and the cod Germanics of Sofa No 2 (both with keyboard player George Duke on vocals), along with Po-Jama People - and hard rock (the recession-chiming Can’t Afford No Shoes, Florentine Pogen and Andy). The result is both lyrically socio-political and musically cohesive.

You say: “Tricky parts, not much potty humor, and if they can get through that…” pata, via mojo4music

best frank zappa biography

Hot Rats marks the first time Zappa used a 16-track studio and he employed a line-up of crack jazz and R&B musicians including violinists Jean Luc Ponty and Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris (aka the ‘Don’ in Don & Dewey), and Wes Montgomery’s drummer Paul Humphreys. The result is a cogent six-track exercise in jazz-rock fusion with the added attraction of FZ’s typically serrated edge. Theme-like opener Peaches En Regalia (featuring Shuggie Otis on bass) sets the tone for a largely instrumental outing that, despite Captain Beefheart’s gnarled psychosexual vocals on Willie The Pimp, lets the music to the talking.

You say: “If you're only going to buy one… Beefheart has fun here.” spiderjohn, via mojo4music

"For all his originality, Zappa also reflected his times.  Funky Nothingness  does that too, being very much the bridge between the high-wire extravagance of  Hot Rats  and the more solidly rooted sound of post-hippy rock..." Read MOJO's verdict on Frank Zappa's newly unearthed Funky Nothingness .

The Mothers Of Invention

VERVE, 1966

best frank zappa biography

Ardent Zappologists lost in the churning depths of the man’s catalogue will question The Mothers’ 1965 debut hogging this top slot. But for the uninitiated it is both his most accessible offering and the template for the rest of his career with many of FZ’s principal themes seeded on this riotous Tom Wilson-produced double. The notion of pop as insurrection (Hungry Freaks, Daddy, its sub-Satisfaction riff welded to an attack on “Mr America”), rock as improvisation (the 12-minute-plus avant work-out of The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet recorded at 1.00am with $500 of rented percussion) and music as satire (the doo-wop pastiche of Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder) all contribute to Freak Out!’s scabrous critique of its own time.

You say: “Elements of psych, doo-wop, blues, garage and graveyard shift alchemy… Get it for it’s first-ness.” Gregory Griffith, mojo4music

Avoid These!

Zappa’s vast catalogue does include a number of albums that remain the preserve of solely the most fanatical of Zappa supporters. Among them are 1984’s  Francesco Zappa  and the 1983 set,  The Man From Utopia , which gathers together a selection of live and studio material that is humour-heavy. Undoubtedly the worst series of releases to bear Frank Zappa’s name, however, are the eight discs of Rhino’s  Beat The Boots , released in 1991. A compilation of bootlegs, the sound quality is beyond suspect, and Frank himself described the set as “burnished turds”. Those seeking additional live Zappa thrills are advised to head for the  You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore  series instead.

Picture: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

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From biting satire to loving homage, the best Frank Zappa songs prove exactly why he’s one of the few artists who truly deserves the epithet “genius.”

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Frank Best Frank Zappa Songs

Born on December 21, 1940, Frank Zappa packed a ridiculous amount of great music into his 52 years on this planet. During his lifetime he made nigh-on 100 separate recordings, put out dozens of classy compilations, fistfuls of singles (some of them super rare), and was the subject of various tribute albums. Among such a plethora of work, the best Frank Zappa songs stand as a testament to a remarkable mind the likes of which we’re unlikely to see again.

Listen to the best of Frank Zappa on Apple Music and Spotify .

His legacy is equally vast: Paul McCartney admitted that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was inspired in part by The Mothers of Invention’s debut, Freak Out! , while Zappa’s discography has touched on avant-garde, musique concrète, industrial, neo-classical and theatrical rock.

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Zappa is one of the few artists operating in a rock or post-rock medium who deserves the epithet “genius.” He poked fun at both the establishment and the counterculture with varying degrees of venom. He was also an advocate for free speech and personal choice, and was quite prepared to accept any barbs that came his way. Celebrated by the Velvet Revolutionaries in Prague, he also became a friend of Czech writer and philosopher Václav Havel. Closer to home, Zappa earned a place within the upper echelons of Rolling Stone ’s list of Greatest Guitarists Of All Time.

He could make metal, pop, rock, and blues, along with free-form jazz (à la Albert Ayler) and even classical. His own influence, meanwhile, ranges far beyond commercial success. Zappa had ideas to burn and would undoubtedly still be recording today, had it not been for his early death in 1993.

Above all, he was a great musician and a venerated songwriter. Below we offer a selection – and it can only be that – of the best Frank Zappa songs.

Zappa in the 60s

What better place to start than at the beginning: the opening track on the Zappa/Mothers 1966 debut, Freak Out! In “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” Zappa addresses the countercultural view of the Great Society. America was in both class and social turmoil at this time, and a psychedelic treatment was undercut not with Frank’s often-quoted cynicism but a fair degree of analysis. One assumes that a certain David Bowie was in contact with this album, since his song “Moonage Daydream” seems to reference the mantra, “Freak out, far out…” and he may have lifted his son’s name from the soon-to-come song “Wowie Zowie.”

Hungry Freaks, Daddy

If you want to explore rock conspiracies, then unravel the ditty “Who Are The Brain Police?” A highly creepy Orwellian diatribe, it earns its place among the best Frank Zappa songs – not least for having freaked out its writer, who admitted that its gestation was a concern. “At five o’clock in the morning, someone kept singing this in my mind and made me write it down,” he recalled. “I will admit to being frightened when I finally played it out loud and sang the words.”

But Zappa wasn’t content to stay within the margins of hippie-speak. On “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” from the 1967 album Absolutely Free , the song’s bluesy origins give way to a cavalcade of musical styles – baroque, surf and rock opera among them. The lyric is a black comedy and another social satire, and the song remains the blueprint for Zappa’s revolutionary attempt to address the underground in a seven-plus-minute musical.

The Mothers’ third album, We’re Only In It For The Money , is an obvious send-up of materialist rock culture that even takes a poke at Sgt Pepper’s… For many Zappa fans, each track could make its case among the best of his songs. Perhaps the weirdest one is the short piece “Concentration Moon,” on which people – dissidents, minorities, et al. – are dragged away on buses and incarcerated. It’s no pastiche, but a heavy little number that still resonates.

Concentration Moon

Time for a breather. Time to “Stuff Up The Cracks.” The late ’68 album Cruising With Ruben & The Jets offers plenty of opportunity to unwind with a little experimental doo-wop. One of Zappa’s early loves, dating back to his own Italian-American roots, doo-wop has influenced many of the best Frank Zappa songs. Blessed with a cool Ray Collins vocal, some hot horns, and a sublime long-fade guitar solo from the main man, this is vintage Mothers, right down to the locked-down-tight rhythms of Roy Estrada and the percussive fills of Jimmy Carl Black and Arthur Dyer Tripp III. You might say this is atypical Frank, but then what is typical Frank?

Hot Rats (1969) is crammed with goodies, but the perennial live favorite, the instrumental “Peaches En Regalia” (also released as a single) retains its currency as one of the best Frank Zappa songs. From an early solo period when Zappa was embracing fatherhood with the birth of son Dweezil, this sumptuous track features studio-effect half-speed mastering and progressive fusion elements. Imagine it as a bizarre cross between Steely Dan and Weather Report, and enjoy the journey while Shuggie Otis plucks his bass and the masterful Ian Underwood carries the horn and organus maximus parts. Every time you play it you’re bound to hear something fresh.

Peaches En Regalia

Zappa in the 70s

Skipping with a heavy heart over Burnt Weeny Sandwich we land on Weasels Ripped My Flesh and an expanded Mothers featuring Lowell George (en route to Little Feat fame). Both live- and studio-based – and Mother-great throughout – it boasts a classic early Neon Park artwork and includes “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama.” Nothing problematic here, just grand warp-rock with a surprisingly folky central acoustic guitar solo and the type of rolling blues rhythm one might also hear on a period Steve Miller Band album.

Recorded live at University Of California, Los Angeles, 1972’s Just Another Band From LA features The Turtles’ Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (aka Flo & Eddie) and shouldn’t be overlooked. To get more bang for your buck, lay back and immerse yourself in the utterly madcap “Billy The Mountain,” a rock opera parody that slaps The Wizard Of Oz next to a sly allusion to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Given the experimental nature of this cracked tune, one suspects most of it was improvised on the spot after a few studio run-throughs, but that adds to the humorous tension.

Billy The Mountain (Live At Pauley Pavilion, UCLA, Los Angeles, 1971)

Ever-prolific, Zappa and his Mothers were on fine form again during 1973’s Over-Nite Sensation , a flat-out comic rock extravaganza with more sexual innuendo than you can shake a stick at. Derided at the time, it sounds excellent today thanks to “Camarillo Brillo,” “I’m the Slime,” “Dinah-Moe Humm,” “Dirty Love,” et al. – but grab onto “Montana,” featuring Tina Turner and The Ikettes, as well as oddball singer Ricky Lancelotti. Fiendishly complex and funky, the track allows the ensemble to blow hard – none more so than Uncle Frank, whose long solo is a tour de force.

Zappa enjoyed a renaissance during this period, and 1974’s Apostrophe (’) would be his most successful album in the US. “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” kicked off a “suite” concerning an Eskimo and a fur trapper, but ends up as one of Frank’s zaniest and most profane tunes. Don’t let that put you off. It’s one of the best Frank Zappa songs of the mid-70s. Audacious rhythms and percussion proliferate, and DiscReet even released the song as a single, which helped the parent album break into Billboard ’s Pop Top 10. Remarkable, considering the subject matter. (“Cosmik Debris” is another highlight from the standout album.)

For something slightly less leftfield, try “Cheepnis,” a delicious item on the live-album-with-overdubs Roxy & Elsewhere . As an experiment in echoing the FX on B-movies, this is hard to beat, with the new-look Mothers including Napoleon Murphy Brock and pioneering funkster George Duke.

Cheepnis (Live At The Roxy, Hollywood/1973)

The Mothers concept ends on One Size Fits All , which opens with the progressive fusion of “Inca Roads” but generally sends itself up thanks to a sequence of time signatures and a famous Zappa guitar solo.

During another prolific year, Zappa teamed up in earnest with his labelmate, friend, and kindred madman, Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van (Glen) Vliet). However, the results were less avant-garde than one might expect. Every track on 1975’s Bongo Fury satisfies, but we’ve picked out the appealing “Advance Romance” for its parodic but affectionate insight into how a love song is written and deconstructed. Soulful mid-70s blues.

Advance Romance (Live)

The more minimalist approach taken on Zoot Allures brings old tropes back into the fold: doo-wop and blues-rock in particular. Disco, German culture, and sexual stereotypes all crop up in the lyrics, but for dark social commentary lock into “Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station,” where the sardonic dismantling of the work ethic manages to be blackly comic.

Without decrying Studio Tan and Sleep Dirt – fine albums both – take a look at Sheik Yerbouti , a monumental double-album recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon and The Palladium, New York. One song that didn’t get much homegrown airplay was the scatological “Bobby Brown,” in which Zappa’s delight at ignoring the boundaries of taste reaches a zenith. Hugely popular in Northern Europe, the song may be Zappa’s most successful commercial moment: the single shifted enough copies to go gold (250,000 satisfied customers in Germany alone) and became a firm live favorite.

Bobby Brown Goes Down

In 1979, Zappa increased his fascination with Xenochrony and progressive guitar solos, but also enjoyed a period of intense exposure on North American FM radio. “Joe’s Garage” (from Joe’s Garage Act I ) is based on a tongue-in-cheek, put-down of garage punk but, by using the God-fearing epiphany of the protagonists, it mutates into a punk classic that sticks it to corporate censorship while being unashamedly misanthropic.

On the same album, you’ll find “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” a song that’s often cited as being Zappa’s favorite composition. Much lighter than anything else on Joe’s Garage , the fluid guitar solos, occasionally reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, make it worth the price of admission alone, and it is a testament to Zappa’s compositional skill. (The original title was “Trying To Play A Solo With These Guys Is Like Trying To Grow A Watermelon In Easter Hay.” Bit long, maybe.)

Zappa in the 80s

After a sequence of albums dedicated to the art (and debunking) of guitar histrionics, Zappa enjoyed a later hit with “Valley Girl,” a song that introduced fans to the culture of San Fernando schoolgirl “Valspeak.” The outcome was a double-edged sword, since Zappa was often viewed as a novelty act, but the track transcends its own joke and stands as one of the best Frank Zappa songs of the era. It elevated its inspiration (and vocalist), Moon Unit Zappa, along with his then 14-year old daughter, to the status of a star in her own right. Better still, it enabled the album Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch to break the Top 30, while the single peaked at No.12.

Valley Girl

By the 80s, it was arguable that Zappa, while not turning his back on rock music, had become far more interested in his other loves: Boulez, Stravinsky, Eric Dolphy, and post-bop free jazz in general. To complete this journey, dig into the version of “Uncle Meat” on 1993’s The Yellow Shark , the final disc released during Zappa’s lifetime. Revisiting one of the best Frank Zappa songs of the 60s, this version, featuring the Modern Ensemble, helps wrap up a career of immense achievement. Tom Waits (who, as a fledgling artist, once supported Zappa on tour) described it best: “The ensemble is awe-inspiring. It is a rich pageant of texture in color. It’s the clarity of his perfect madness and mastery. Frank governs with Elmore James on his left and Stravinsky on his right. Frank reigns and rules with the strangest tools.”

One of Zappa’s final performances is the album’s closer, the epic “G-Spot Tornado,” on which he overcame his illness and marched on stage in Frankfurt in order to conduct the Ensemble and received the ovation of his life. We won’t see his like again.

July 8, 2016 at 5:17 pm

Is over all titten geil.

Eric Kennedy

December 29, 2016 at 12:06 am

“Music is the best.” Thanks, Frank.

October 23, 2018 at 4:30 pm

Frank Zappa was my teenage years. RIP

July 16, 2019 at 3:48 am

The side of Apostrophe that contains Nanook’s Revenge, Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow, and Cosmik Debris is like one long killer single–the ENTIRE SIDE (of what was once a vinyl record album, for those who know what I’m talking about, and who remember what that was). Pure genius–and by far, the BEST material Zappa ever did, bar none. Great to listen to on those cold winter nights, along with Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You were Here, A New World’s Record by ELO, a side or three of some Alan Parsons Project mixed in, and enough alcohol in my system to groove beautifully to all of it (the alcohol isn’t actually necessary, but it helps…) Happy listening!!…..

December 6, 2020 at 3:25 pm

Hey Wild Bill! I like the company you have place APOSTROPHE in. If not familiar, I suggest you check out the 1st side of Amon Duul II’s “Vive La Trance.”

March 19, 2023 at 2:12 am

No willie the pimp

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Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs

Frank Zappa 's music isn't for all tastes. He knew this: He made it that way. While his peers and contemporaries were incorporating R&B and blues into their psych-out rock 'n' roll, Zappa played around with more esteemed forms of music, including jazz, classical and performance art-based collage. The music he made – with the Mothers of Invention, as a solo artist and on projects that aren't so easily defined or classifiable – was almost always challenging.

Even a seemingly throwaway goof like Don't Eat the Yellow Snow incorporated musical twists and turns that would leave typical rock artists bruised after 30 seconds. Still, Zappa's music found open-eared audiences among traditional rockers, classical and jazz fans, connoisseurs of outre music and, of course, totally stoned hippies. His discography spans almost 30 years, all the way to his death in 1993. He released more than 60 albums during that period. It wasn't easy, but we managed to pull together a list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs.

'Who Are the Brain Police?'

Zappa's 1966 debut LP with the Mothers of Invention is often credited as the first concept album. Like so many of Zappa's records, the double album mocks a specific corner or contemporary society – in this case, the burgeoning hippie culture. "Who Are the Brain Police?," which was actually released as a single, lives up to the album's title: It's a sonic freak-out structured on top of layers of noise. Obviously it didn't chart.

'Peaches En Regalia'

Zappa's second solo album following the Mothers' breakup was an instrumental work that almost completely abandoned typical rock signposts. Yet, influenced by the growing jazz fusion movement, Hot Rats remains one of Zappa's most accessible albums. The breezy "Peaches En Regalia" is the LP's opening cut, a playful and tuneful song that regularly found its way into Zappa's live shows.

'Valley Girl'

Zappa's only Top 40 hit (it hit No. 32) featured his 14-year-old daughter Moon on lead vocals, running through a bunch of early-'80s "valley" speak (if you lived through it, you knew how painful it was). But keeping with his lifelong skewering of fads and cultures, "Valley Girl" is a biting satire of West Coast emptiness – something that probably went way over the heads of the young people who made it a hit.

'Dancin' Fool'

Disco was huge in 1979. So naturally it was a ripe subject for Zappa to attack. And it's such a spot-on parody of the music and culture that it became his biggest hit until "Valley Girl" (see No. 8 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs). The backbeat makes it easy for commercial consumption ... until it all breaks down somewhere in the middle as about a dozen different styles nudging the dance elements aside.

'My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama'

It's no surprise that this song by the Mothers of Invention was released as a single in 1969: It doesn't sound all that different from other songs that came out during that musically experimental year. It even includes a pretty killer guitar solo, appropriately. It's also not so surprising that a single titled "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" bombed. (The song later appeared on the 1970 album Weasels Ripped My Flesh. )

'Brown Shoes Don't Make It'

One of Zappa's earliest free-form masterpieces, a seven-minute pop explosion that wraps up about a decade's worth of Top 40 radio in a typically twisted take-down of dwindling U.S. values. "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" is the centerpiece of the Mothers' second album, itself a classic of mid-'60s adventurism and the earliest example of Zappa's genre-sprawling brilliance on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs.

'Don't Eat the Yellow Snow'

Zappa's first charting single (it reached No. 86 in 1974) is also the lead track from the four-song suite that starts his only Top 10 album. While the song introduced Zappa to tons of new fans, it also branded him with the reputation as a novelty artist who packed more jokes than talent. The track's flowing bass and elastic melody nod subtly to the doo-wop music that's at the core of so many Zappa songs.

'Cosmik Debris'

Another song from Zappa's only Top 10 album Apostrophe (see No. 4 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs), and the track that follows the "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow suite. Zappa narrates the story of a promise-sputtering guru over a springy jazz rhythm that steps down for a killer guitar solo. A mid-'70s slam of leftover '60s "mumbo jumbo."

'Joe's Garage'

The title track, and key cut, to Zappa's three-act rock opera about the music business (and, in a way, a body slam to punk rock) features one of his most mainstream-leaning melodies. Of course, the lyrics tell a different story: Top 40 music is mocked, derided and scorned throughout the six-minute track. Still, it's one of Zappa's most popular songs.

In 1973, Zappa returned to the studio with a new band of Mothers. The sessions yielded two albums: 1974's Apostrophe which was credited as a solo record (see Nos. 3 and 4 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs), and Over-Nite Sensation, a band LP from 1973. "Montana" is the closing cut on the latter album and a six-minute tour de force for both bandleader and group. Drum fills, blazing guitar solos, funky time signatures – all that plus Tina Turner on backing vocals.

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Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa

The creator of radical rock during the '60s who later pursued even more adventurous avenues, ranging from jazz-rock to classical composition.

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The Story Behind Frank Zappa’s Last Studio Release Before His Death, ‘Jazz from Hell’

by Thom Donovan January 17, 2024, 3:48 pm

It must have been maddening for Frank Zappa to work with rock musicians. His ambitious ideas were often impossible to perform. Sometimes, the body’s physical limitations just can’t keep up with the math. Which brings us to the story behind Zappa’s last release, Jazz from Hell .

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Some history.

The Mothers of Invention formed in California in 1964. They were called the Soul Giants before Zappa joined. With Zappa as band leader, the group signed to Verve Records and released their debut album Freak Out! in 1966. The Mothers were famous in California’s underground music scene before a wider audience caught on. 

The group cycled through multiple lineups in the ’70s, while Zappa focused on big-band and orchestral works. The Mothers’ final album was Bongo Fury , released in 1975. It’s a live album with studio elements and also features Captain Beefheart. 

Zappa achieved his greatest commercial success with Apostrophe (’) . He was a cranky cultural critic, and his sense of humor wasn’t for everyone. However, the juvenile “ Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow ” is one of Zappa’s most streamed songs. 

Novelty Purveyor + Fascism Slayer

Accompanied by his then-14-year-old daughter, Moon, Zappa used “Valley Girl” to critique the California suburbs. It was Zappa’s only Top 40 single in the U.S. “Valley Girl” appeared on his 1982 album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch . Though Zappa was airing grievances toward suburban triviality, a Streisand effect happened, and mainstream culture fell in love with the “Valley Girl” caricature. 

He was a leading voice in the fight over censorship against the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Zappa appeared contentiously on Crossfire in 1986, arguing against the censors before setting his sights on Ronald Reagan and what he considered the impending “fascist theocracy” in America.

Turning to classical composition, Zappa began work with the London Symphony Orchestra. The sessions were fraught with stubborn and cynical musicians. The final 1983 recordings were pieced together from multiple edits.

[RELATED: Remember When: The PMRC Goes to War Against Noted “P*rn Rockers” Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister, and…John Denver?!]

On Jazz from Hell , the Synclavier provided Zappa a cure for musicians incompetent to reproduce his ideas. It’s an early digital synthesizer and sampling workstation. The Synclavier sounded cold and sterile compared to analog synthesizers like the Moog. But the textures on Jazz from Hell were shocking in 1986. In hindsight, they were a precursor to how today’s music is made with modern digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Pro Tools and Logic. 

The rhythmic precision of a workstation is favored over “feel” and “groove.” The intention of changing time signatures and shape-shifting sounds is disorientation. Testing the limitations of technology at the time was part of Zappa’s compositional toolbox. Moments of recognition are fleeting. Most music has something familiar in it. Familiarity eases the connection between the artist and the audience. Jazz from Hell isn’t typical or easy. 

Zappa was constantly forward-thinking. What’s interesting about Jazz from Hell is how ‘stock’ it sounds. He was experimenting with technology very few people had access to. The Synclavier was expensive, which put it out of reach for most musicians. The sounds on Zappa’s final studio album resemble factory presets. It sounds like what you might hear browsing the keyboard department at a local Guitar Center. Press a button, and you get the album opener “Night School.”

Facsimile Rock

He used the Synclavier on “While You Were Art II” to recreate an improvised guitar solo from “While You Were Out” from his 1981 album Shup Up ’N Play Yer Guitar . With this recreation, ephemeral human moments bubble to the surface, then quickly disappear inside a cacophony of notes. There are moments when the synthesizer sounds broken. It was like someone had entered the wrong math into a rhythm machine, making it impossible to locate the downbeat. 

Finding drummers who could perform his arrangements was a challenge for Zappa. His composition, “The Black Page #1,” so-called for the number of notes written, is famously difficult to perform. Zappa’s longtime drummer, Terry Bozzio, learned it after two weeks of practice. “G-Spot Tornado” sounds like such a piece. Even in its complexity, it’s the closest thing to groove on Jazz from Hell . 

A live version of “G-Spot Tornado” appears on the 1993 album The Yellow Shark . The ensemble of humans performing this supposedly impossible piece showcases Zappa’s compositional brilliance.

From Stiff to the Good Stuff

Critics accused Zappa of being a stiff or, worse, a sideshow. There’s little on Jazz from Hell to refute the charge until late in the album when Zappa returns to his love of improvisation. 

“St. Etienne” features a guitar solo from a live version of “Drowning Witch.” It feels like a kind of mercy. “St. Etienne” is a reminder of Zappa’s virtuosity. It’s the penultimate track on Jazz from Hell, and it’s a welcome reward for making it this far into the album. 

Not everyone bought into President Reagan’s rosy pronouncements. Zappa was an outspoken and well-known critic of the president. He referred to Reagan as “a president from hell” with a National Security Council “from hell.” Thus, the album had a name: Jazz from Hell . 

Jazz from Hell won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1988. It’s a curious category to find the album. There isn’t anything resembling rock on Zappa’s farewell studio effort.   

It’s a fitting note for Zappa to have ended on. The album is intricate and absurd. Like much of his work, it challenges the listener to tests of boundary and stamina. At its cold, digital heart, Jazz from Hell is an exercise in logic. Glimpsing back to the Crossfire episode from 1986, the crux of Zappa’s argument was logic. Like Jazz from Hell , your feelings don’t matter—only logic. 

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

( EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article did not clarify that Jazz From Hell was the last STUDIO album officially released before Frank’s passing. He of course worked on music up until his death that was released posthumously, and released non-studio records after Jazz From Hell and before his death. Thanks to reader Christian for the heads-up!)

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20 Best Frank Zappa Books to Read in 2021 | Book List

After an entertaining book to read? Looking for the perfect book to gift to your dad/mother/sister/anyone. This article showcases our top picks for the best Frank Zappa books. 

Best Frank Zappa Books

Looking for a book to read in 2021? Explore this list of the best Frank Zappa books. This list was curated with thanks to ISBNdb and images partially provided by Unsplash.

If you have a book suggestion, feel free to drop it in the moderated comment section at the bottom of the article.

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa by Lambert M. Surhone was published in 2010. It was officially published by and has the ISBN: 6131060428.

Information provided with thanks to  isbndb.com  and  unsplash.com

Frank Zappa

Author : Lambert M. Surhone

Date Published : 2010

Publisher :

ISBN :6131060428

Frank Zappa by Dézsi, Csaba András, Zappa, Frank. was published in 1989. It was officially published by Győr Megyei Lapkiadó Vállalat and has the ISBN: 9637247017.

Frank Zappa

Author : Dézsi, Csaba András, Zappa, Frank.

Date Published : 1989

Publisher : Győr Megyei Lapkiadó Vállalat

ISBN :9637247017

Frank Zappa.

Frank Zappa. by Harald Kuhn was published in 2004. It was officially published by Palmyra Verlag and has the ISBN: 393037854X.

Frank Zappa.

Author : Harald Kuhn

Date Published : 2004

Publisher : Palmyra Verlag

ISBN :393037854X

Frank Zappa by Christophe Delbrouck was published in 1994. It was officially published by and has the ISBN: 2950650252.

Frank Zappa

Author : Christophe Delbrouck

Date Published : 1994

ISBN :2950650252

Frank Zappa. by Kuhn, Harald was published in . It was officially published by and has the ISBN: 3899961218.

Frank Zappa.

Author : Kuhn, Harald

Date Published :

ISBN :3899961218

Frank Zappa: Captain Beefheart, Don Preston, Louie Louie, Pal Recording Studio, Arthur Barrow, Bunk Gardner, The Grandmothers, Gto’

Frank Zappa: Captain Beefheart, Don Preston, Louie Louie, Pal Recording Studio, Arthur Barrow, Bunk Gardner, The Grandmothers, Gto’ by Gruppe, Bucher was published in 2010. It was officially published by and has the ISBN: 1158986602.

Frank Zappa: Captain Beefheart, Don Preston, Louie Louie, Pal Recording Studio, Arthur Barrow, Bunk Gardner, The Grandmothers, Gto'

Author : Gruppe, Bucher

ISBN :1158986602

Frank Zappa. by Reichert, Carl-ludwig was published in 2000. It was officially published by Dtv and has the ISBN: 3423310391.

Frank Zappa.

Author : Reichert, Carl-ludwig

Date Published : 2000

Publisher : Dtv

ISBN :3423310391

Frank Zappa by Frederic P. Miller was published in 2010. It was officially published by and has the ISBN: 6130651805.

Frank Zappa

Author : Frederic P. Miller

ISBN :6130651805

Frank Zappa Songs: Bolero, Whipping Post, Ring Of Fire, Purple Haze, Sunshine Of Your Love, Billy The Mountain

Frank Zappa Songs: Bolero, Whipping Post, Ring Of Fire, Purple Haze, Sunshine Of Your Love, Billy The Mountain by Books, LLC, Group was published in . It was officially published by and has the ISBN: 1155879252.

Frank Zappa Songs: Bolero, Whipping Post, Ring Of Fire, Purple Haze, Sunshine Of Your Love, Billy The Mountain

Author : Books, LLC, Group

ISBN :1155879252

Frank Zappa. L’autobiografia

Frank Zappa. L’autobiografia by Occhiogrosso, Peter, Zappa, Frank was published in 2017. It was officially published by Universale Arcana and has the ISBN: 886231955x.

Frank Zappa. L'autobiografia

Author : Occhiogrosso, Peter, Zappa, Frank

Date Published : 2017

Publisher : Universale Arcana

ISBN :886231955x

Frank Zappa FAQ

Frank Zappa FAQ by John Corcelli was published in 20160801. It was officially published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group and has the ISBN: 1617136743.

Frank Zappa FAQ

Author : John Corcelli

Date Published : 20160801

Publisher : Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group

ISBN :1617136743

Frank Zappa. L’autobiografia by Peter Occhiogrosso, Frank Zappa was published in 2003. It was officially published by Arcana and has the ISBN: 8879662791.

Frank Zappa. L'autobiografia

Author : Peter Occhiogrosso, Frank Zappa

Date Published : 2003

Publisher : Arcana

ISBN :8879662791

Frank-zappa-album: Hot Rats, Absolutely Free, Freak Out!, Over-nite Sensation, Lumpy Gravy, Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, Mothermania

Frank-zappa-album: Hot Rats, Absolutely Free, Freak Out!, Over-nite Sensation, Lumpy Gravy, Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, Mothermania by Gruppe, Bucher was published in 2010. It was officially published by and has the ISBN: 1158986564.

Frank-zappa-album: Hot Rats, Absolutely Free, Freak Out!, Over-nite Sensation, Lumpy Gravy, Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, Mothermania

ISBN :1158986564

Frank Zappa en el infierno: el rock como movilización para la disidencia política

Frank Zappa en el infierno: el rock como movilización para la disidencia política by Fuente Soler, Manuel De La. was published in 2006. It was officially published by Biblioteca Nueva and has the ISBN: 8497425928.

Frank Zappa en el infierno: el rock como movilización para la disidencia política

Author : Fuente Soler, Manuel De La.

Date Published : 2006

Publisher : Biblioteca Nueva

ISBN :8497425928

Frank Zappa Guitar Book

Frank Zappa Guitar Book by Frank Zappa, Steve Vai was published in 1982. It was officially published by Hal Leonard Publishing and has the ISBN: 0711902232.

Frank Zappa Guitar Book

Author : Frank Zappa, Steve Vai

Date Published : 1982

Publisher : Hal Leonard Publishing

ISBN :0711902232

Frank Zappa Guitar Book by Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation was published in 1983. It was officially published by Hal Leonard Corp and has the ISBN: 0793524342.

Frank Zappa Guitar Book

Author : Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation

Date Published : 1983

Publisher : Hal Leonard Corp

ISBN :0793524342

Frank Zappa: A Biography

Frank Zappa: A Biography by Julian Colbeck was published in 1987. It was officially published by Virgin Bks. and has the ISBN: 0863691560.

Frank Zappa: A Biography

Author : Julian Colbeck

Date Published : 1987

Publisher : Virgin Bks.

ISBN :0863691560

Mother!: The Frank Zappa Story (frank Zappa Story 2nd Ed)

Mother!: The Frank Zappa Story (frank Zappa Story 2nd Ed) by Gray, Michael was published in 2003-05-23t00:00:01z. It was officially published by Plexus Publishing and has the ISBN: 0859653331.

Mother!: The Frank Zappa Story (frank Zappa Story 2nd Ed)

Author : Gray, Michael

Date Published : 2003-05-23t00:00:01z

Publisher : Plexus Publishing

ISBN :0859653331

Frank Zappa – Hot Rats

Frank Zappa – Hot Rats by Frank Zappa was published in 2001. It was officially published by Hal Leonard and has the ISBN: 0634021524.

Frank Zappa - Hot Rats

Author : Frank Zappa

Date Published : 2001

Publisher : Hal Leonard

ISBN :0634021524

Electric Don Quixote: the story of Frank Zappa

Electric Don Quixote: the story of Frank Zappa by Slaven, Neil. was published in 1996. It was officially published by Omnibus Press and has the ISBN: 0711959838.

Electric Don Quixote: the story of Frank Zappa

Author : Slaven, Neil.

Date Published : 1996

Publisher : Omnibus Press

ISBN :0711959838

best frank zappa biography

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  1. Frank Zappa

    best frank zappa biography

  2. Frank Zappa

    best frank zappa biography

  3. Frank Zappa Discography: Most Up-to-Date Encyclopedia, News & Reviews

    best frank zappa biography

  4. Frank Zappa (American Musician) ~ Wiki & Bio with Photos

    best frank zappa biography

  5. Frank Zappa the Musician, biography, facts and quotes

    best frank zappa biography

  6. Frank Vincent Zappa Biography

    best frank zappa biography


  1. Frank Zappa's three favourite guitarists of all time

  2. Frank Zappa Interview Tom Leykis 061990

  3. Frank Zappa

  4. Best Frank Zappa album to start with? What to avoid? #frankzappa


  1. Recommend some good Frank Zappa books!

    Freak Out, my life with Frank Zappa by Pauline Butcher is a must. She was Frank and Gail's secretary from around 1967-72. Some recommended alumni books... Shell Shocked - Howard Kaylan. Of Course I Said Yes - Arthur Barrow. For Mother's Sake - Jimmy Carl Black. Johnny Formica, Nov 8, 2022. #4.

  2. Best Zappa biography?

    This one is definitely the best of the few that do exist. I met Barry Miles when he was in the process of writing it and he mentioned what hard taskmasters (and fact sticklers) Zappa fans were. I like it because it treats its subject matter as mortal. Andrew J, Jul 22, 2017. #3. squittolo and warewolf95 like this.

  3. Frank Zappa

    Frank Vincent Zappa (/ ˈ z æ p ə / ZAP-ə; December 21, 1940 - December 4, 1993) was an American musician, composer, and bandleader.In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestral and musique concrète works; he also produced almost all of the 60-plus albums that he released with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist.

  4. Frank Zappa

    Guitarist and composer Frank Zappa made music from the 1960s to the 1980s. Learn about his life and career, including his jazz-rock fusion album Hot Rats , on Biography.com. ... Best Known For ...

  5. Frank Zappa

    Frank Zappa (born December 21, 1940, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.—died December 4, 1993, Los Angeles, California) was an American composer, guitarist, and satirist of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Zappa was, in no apparent order, a first-rate cultural gadfly dedicated to upsetting American suburban complacency and puncturing the hypocrisy and ...

  6. Frank Zappa's 10 greatest albums of all time

    In his official biography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, ... Frank Zappa's 10 best albums: We're Only In It for the Money (1968) - Mothers of Invention . If there is anything Frank Zappa held disdain for, it was definitely the hippie counterculture of the 1960s.

  7. Zappa: A Biography: Miles, Barry: 9780802142153: Amazon.com: Books

    Zappa: A Biography. Paperback - Illustrated, September 16, 2005. by Barry Miles (Author) 218. See all formats and editions. Ten years after his death, Frank Zappa continues to influence popular culture. With almost one hundred recordings still in print, Zappa remains a classic American icon. Scores of bands have been influenced by (and have ...

  8. Frank Zappa: How The Hungry Freak Turned DIY Pioneer

    With his own recording studio and a seemingly endless head for ideas, Frank Zappa was a truly independent artist who paved the way for future generations. Bandleader, songwriter, composer ...

  9. Frank Zappa

    Frank Zappa deserves admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a great guitarist, songwriter, creator of concept albums, comedian, talent scout, doo wop expert, social critic and avid misanthrope. The Hall has already honored several of each, but Frank Zappa stands unique as the first inductee who also had a substantial career as a ...

  10. The life and times of Frank Zappa

    Frank Zappa's 60-album oeuvre is an imposing body of work. Some of the records are better than others, but the overall quality level is astonishingly high. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Zappa was still in top creative form at age 52, when he succumbed to prostate cancer - on December 4, 1993 - after battling the disease for several ...

  11. Celebrating The Life And Times Of Frank Zappa On The Anniversary Of His

    Thirty years ago today Frank Vincent Zappa passed away at the age of 52 after a long battle with prostate cancer.An immensely influential composer, musician, statesman, activist, and artist, Zappa ...

  12. Frank Zappa's best albums

    Frank Zappa - Hot Rats (1969) Zappa's first proper solo album, Hot Rats was a clean break from the cut-ups and sneering comedy of the Mothers. It was also Zappa's first (almost) completely serious album. Consisting of six tracks that range from the disciplined instrumental opener Peaches En Regalia to the rambling, extended jam The Gumbo ...

  13. Frank Zappa

    In 1956, Zappa met Don Van Vliet (best known by his stage name "Captain Beefheart") while taking classes at Antelope Valley High School and playing drums in a local band, the Blackouts. ... Frank Zappa: The Biography. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0802142153. Zappa, Frank, and Peter Occhiogrosso. The Real Frank Zappa Book. New York ...

  14. The best Frank Zappa albums : A Beginner's Guide

    The discography of Frank Zappa is much like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Depending on the album you start with, your first impression of what Zappa does will be wildly different. With a career spanning from the Mothers of Invention's 1966's psych-rock Freak Out! album to the orchestral Yellow Shark released a month before he died in 1993, delving into his massive catalog ...

  15. Music is the Best: Considering Frank Zappa's Legacy

    Frank Zappa died 30 years ago.. Zappa, one of music's grandest iconoclasts, lost his multi-year battle with prostate cancer on December 4, 1993. Had he lived, the leader of The Mothers of Invention, who sang "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," made cult-classic film 200 Motels, and released over 60 albums would turn 83 this December.. Considering his myriad accomplishments, it's easy to ...

  16. Frank Zappa's Greatest Albums Ranked!

    MOJO pays tribute to the godfather of invention with a rundown of Frank Zappa's ten best albums. 10. The Yellow Shark 9. Uncle Meat 8. Chunga's Revenge ... He may like our music," proclaimed Frank Zappa in 1967, on the eve of the release of the first Mothers Of Invention LP Freak Out! In the ensuing 26 years, until his death on December 4 ...

  17. Best Frank Zappa Songs: 20 Essential Tracks

    Born on December 21, 1940, Frank Zappa packed a ridiculous amount of great music into his 52 years on this planet. During his lifetime he made nigh-on 100 separate recordings, put out dozens of ...

  18. Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs

    From: 'Apostrophe' (1974) Another song from Zappa's only Top 10 album Apostrophe (see No. 4 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs), and the track that follows the "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow ...

  19. Frank Zappa Songs, Albums, Reviews, Bio & More...

    Explore Frank Zappa's discography including top tracks, albums, and reviews. Learn all about Frank Zappa on AllMusic. ... Read Full Biography. STREAM OR BUY: Active. 1950s - 1990s. Born . December 21, 1940 in Baltimore, MD. Died . December 4, 1993 in Los Angeles, CA. Genre. Pop ...

  20. Frank Zappa A&E Biography

    A 1993 profile of bandleader, guitarist and satirist Frank Zappa (1940-93) includes his final TV interview, plus concert clips and comments from former band ...

  21. The Story Behind Frank Zappa's Last Album, 'Jazz from Hell'

    The Story Behind Frank Zappa's Last Studio Release Before His Death, 'Jazz from Hell'. by Thom Donovan January 17, 2024, 3:48 pm. It must have been maddening for Frank Zappa to work with ...

  22. The History of Rock Music. Frank Zappa: biography, discography, reviews

    The Man From Utopia , 5/10. Them Or Us , 6/10. Thing-Fish , 5/10. Shut Up And Play Your Guitar , 5/10. You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore , 5/10. Meets The Mothers Of Prevention , 5/10. Broadway The Hard Way , 5/10. The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life , 5/10. Make A Jazz Noise Here , 6/10.

  23. 20 Best Frank Zappa Books to Read in 2021

    Frank Zappa Songs: Bolero, Whipping Post, Ring Of Fire, Purple Haze, Sunshine Of Your Love, Billy The Mountain by Books, LLC, Group was published in . It was officially published by and has the ISBN: 1155879252. Information provided with thanks to isbndb.com and unsplash.com. Author: Books, LLC, Group.